House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) announced Wednesday he will retire at the end of his term, a historically unusual move that jolted Washington and further complicated embattled Republicans’ hopes of holding the House.
“I have accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids aren’t getting any younger,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference after a closed-door meeting of House Republicans. “What I realized is if I serve for one more term, my kids will only have known me as a weekend dad.”
Ryan, 48, who plans to retire in January, said the possibility of Democrats taking over the House did not factor into his decision “whatsoever,” and he predicted a Republican victory in November.
Ryan’s announcement is certain to sap morale and make GOP donors wary as Republicans seek to contain a surge in Democratic enthusiasm and survive the drag of an unpopular president. It also comes amid a massive turnover among House Republicans. Since January 2017, 46 have announced they were retiring or resigned outright, some to run for other office, some leaving amid scandal and some quitting amid choppy political prospects at home. Ten powerful committee chairmen are bowing out. Others have decided to leave because they no longer find the job rewarding.
Within an hour of Ryan’s announcement, Rep. Dennis A. Ross (Fla.), a relatively safe Republican in just his fourth term, announced that he, too, would retire at the end of the year.
Democrats have begun to use the speaker, whose popularity has plummeted since taking the gavel 2½ years ago, as a foil in election campaigns, sometimes more often than President Trump. In southeast Wisconsin, Ryan was facing his most difficult reelection campaign ever against an ironworker who has raised nearly $5 million from liberal donors who loathe the speaker.
Ryan acknowledged that the normal course of action would have been to run for reelection and then, after the election, announce that he would not serve out the term, avoiding lame-duck status and demonstrating his commitment to rank-and-file Republicans. Not since Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) in 1986 has a speaker announced his retirement plans in this manner — and O’Neill was 73 and had served a decade as speaker, while Democrats were heading into a comfortable midterm election in which they gained seats.
“I really do not believe whether I stay or go in 2019 is going to affect a person’s individual race for Congress. I really don’t think a person’s race for Congress is going to hinge on whether Paul Ryan is speaker or not,” he said.
Ryan, in a later interview, said that he does not plan to run for any office again, in part because his current office is a polarizing position that has made him a very unpopular figure. “That’s what speaker of the House gets you. That’s kind of why I knew this would be my last elected office. When I took this job, I knew that,” he said.
Trump saluted Ryan as “a truly good man,” tweeting that “while he will not be seeking reelection, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question.”
The speaker called Trump and Vice President Pence on Wednesday morning to inform them of his decision, before he told his staff and fellow Republican lawmakers.
That presidential tweet encapsulated a rocky two-year relationship between the two leaders. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Ryan frequently criticized Trump’s tenor or policy proposals as nativist and out of step with traditional conservatism. Ryan even held off on endorsing Trump after he locked up enough support to win the Republican nomination, and in the fall of 2016 Ryan refused to campaign for Trump after The Washington Post reported on a 2005 video of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.
By last fall, Trump and Ryan were in sync on how to manage the passage of a massive overhaul of the tax code, which the president signed into law in December, and there have been very few signs of infighting in recent months.
Democrats pounced on Ryan’s decision. “Speaker Ryan sees what is coming in November and is calling it quits,” said Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Those familiar with Ryan’s thinking said neither his party’s November prospects nor his relationship with Trump played a role in the decision. He had been mulling the decision since late last year and finalized his plans over the two-week spring break. During that time, according to a person familiar with Ryan’s decision, the speaker took a family vacation in Europe.
The two Republicans most likely to replace Ryan are House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.). Both issued statements Wednesday praising Ryan and pledging to work closely with him through the remainder of his tenure.
Ryan was the vice presidential nominee in 2012 on the GOP ticket with Mitt Romney, who remains a close confidant. In a stroke of irony, Romney, 71, is likely to be a freshman senator from Utah next year as his younger understudy heads into retirement.
As he has said many times before, Ryan noted Wednesday that this was a job that he never sought, which made it easier for him to leave. He took the gavel in October 2015 after John A. Boehner abruptly announced his resignation amid a conservative revolt and no other Republican could secure enough votes to become speaker.
“I didn’t take this job to get the gavel in the first place. I’m not a guy who thinks about it like that,” he said.
His oldest child is now 16, the same as Ryan when he came home to find his father dead of a heart attack. He said he doesn’t want to be looking back on his life and wishing he spent more time with his children.
He cited tax reform and rebuilding the military as his two biggest achievements and said he wants to accomplish more before stepping down.
“I want be clear here,” Ryan said. “I’m not done yet. I’m going to run through the tape.”
As speaker, he’s proved to be a major fundraiser for his colleagues. A spokesman for Ryan’s political action committee said he remains committed to helping colleagues in this year’s elections and could actually have more time now to devote to that task. On Monday his political advisers announced he had already raised $54 million over the last 15 months, $40 million of which was directed to other GOP campaigns through the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Some friends expected Ryan to run for reelection to at least keep up the energy on the fundraising circuit. Just two weeks ago, Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader and longtime Ryan friend, predicted that the speaker would serve out his term, run for reelection and then decide his future in November.
To do otherwise, Cantor told The Washington Post in an interview, would be to “abdicate” power and send a signal that Republicans had no chance of keeping the majority.
But most House Republicans seemed to sense that the job had worn him down and were not expecting him to return in 2019, so this was the “honest timing of an honest man,” as Rep. Darrell Issa (R- Calif.) put it.
“He didn’t want to imply that he was running for reelection when he knew he wouldn’t be staying,” Issa said.
Some Republicans are wary of a prolonged period of jockeying to succeed him. “The only thing that might be helpful is if we figure out who the next speaker is beforehand,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.).
But Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said a long wait would be helpful. “Depending on how the elections come out, we can see what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and that can determine who should be the speaker,” King said. “There will be some maneuvering behind the scenes, but we don’t need a public campaign right now.”
Seung Min Kim, Robert Costa, David Weigel and Erica Werner contributed to this report.