Speaker Ryan has distinguished himself through his service to the country for the past two decades. Since 1999, he’s represented the First Congressional District of his home state of Wisconsin. As speaker of the House, he’s worked to solve important national challenges, including tax reform and fiscal sustainability, particularly when it comes to Medicare and Social Security. It’s well-known that Speaker Ryan has earned the reputation as a big of a policy wonk. But what’s not so well-known is that his enthusiasm for the minute details of government and public policy began far before he was a member of Congress. In fact, he’s admitted that, as a teenager, he actually read the federal budget for fun. [LAUGHTER]
But I have to say, despite these early wonkish tendencies and his reading of the federal budget for fun, it’s a testament to his charm and personality at the same time he was elected high school prom king. [LAUGHTER]
In a matter of weeks, Paul Ryan will step down as speaker. And given that he’s proposed raising the eligibility age for retirement benefits to 67, I can’t imagine that he’s actually retiring at the age of 48. So maybe this is a signal that he has another career or two ahead of him, and perhaps even one that will bring him back to Washington. But whatever lies ahead for Speaker Ryan, we wish him and his family the very best.
Now, please welcome to the stage Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and senior congressional correspondent Paul Kane.
One-on-One with House Speaker Paul Ryan
F. Ryan: Paul, welcome.
Ryan: Thanks, Fred .
F. Ryan: Thank you, Paul.
Kane: Good morning everyone.
Ryan: Hey, morning.
Kane: Fred gave an amazing introduction, as always. Just add a few other things, just for sort of data details. Paul Ryan is the 54th speaker of the House. He’s led the House for more than three years. In a couple weeks, he will step down. We’re delighted to have him here at The Washington Post for what will be one of his final interviews as House speaker.
Before we begin, we’d like to let the audience know that you can tweet some questions at us for Speaker Ryan using the hashtag #202Live. And we’ll try to get some of them on air.
All right. Let’s just get this right of the way.
Ryan: Oh, great.
Kane: If some of the crowd doesn’t know, explain the facial hair.
Ryan: It’s deer season, okay. [LAUGHTER]
Kane: All right. Is this going to be a permanent thing, heading in to retirement?
Ryan: No, Janna usually doesn’t let it be a permanent thing. So I basically have it for, effectively, the month of December, usually. End of November and throughout most of December. It’s what I do typically every December.
Kane: Okay. Just wanted to make sure. Some guys head into retirement, some—[OVERLAPPING]
Ryan: Yeah, I’ll see if I can get away with it, but I’m not sure I’ll be allowed to do that.
Kane: Okay. Up on Capitol Hill right now, the incoming Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi is battling an ideological flank in her caucus. You’re laughing already. She’s not sure if she can get to 218 votes. Sound familiar?
Ryan: Yeah. I saw her last night. We did this Churchill thing together. It was Winston Churchill’s 144th birthday and we do this sort of ceremony in the Capitol. And Nancy and I did that together. I congratulated her on her caucus vote and I offered my condolences. [LAUGHTER] And, yeah, it does sound familiar. It’s a function of politics today.
Kane: Do you think the Democrats will go through the similar growing pains of being in the majority the same way John Boehner and yourself, for eight years, seemed to constantly have this battle?
Ryan: Yes, I do. I do. I’m not going to get into speculating floor votes and things like that. But already you can see. The reason I am speaker is because me predecessor, John Boehner, went through all of that. I ended up becoming the consensus person and kind of drafted into it because we went through those torturous, you know, kind of machinations. I see that they’ll probably have the same experiences.
Their party, now that they’re the majority, is a wider party, ideologically speaking. Our majority is the same. And it’s the 21st century, where the internet can allow a person to become a celebrity pretty quickly by being an entertaining figure. And those incentive structures are in place for both parties, for anybody.
Kane: Democrats often say that they’re the party that actually loves governing, though. They don’t like to blow things up and that’s a Republican instinct, that the Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party are more inclined to blow up government. Do you disagree with that?
Ryan: I think I do now. I could see that case being made a decade or two ago, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily the case. Take a look at this session we’re completing. We will have passed over a thousand bills out of the House. That is a record pace. You haven’t seen a pace like that since the early 1980s. And by the way, over 80% of those bills are bipartisan bills. It doesn’t get a lot of play, but that’s what I would call “governing.” For the first time in 22 years, 75% of all discretionary spending is done, it’s passed, it’s in law, it’s on time, ahead of the fiscal year deadline. You know these things.
So, I’d say we became a pretty good governing party. And, you know, we lost a midterm election. Those things happen. But I think we’ve become a pretty good governing party. And they’re going to have the growing pains we had. They will have the same political friction and tug-and-pull, just in different directions than what we had.
Kane: We have to ask this question, The Washington Post, we’re the hometown paper for the federal workforce.
Ryan: You guys are going to get shut down .
Kane: Yeah. You funded 75% of the government, not 100%.
Kane: The president seems to be adamant in trying to force this showdown over the border wall, $5 billion. What’s going to happen?
Ryan: First of all, border security is very important. It really is important. It’s important, if only to stop the flow of fentanyl and heroin coming into our schools. It’s important because of the lawlessness at the border. I know people want to just say it’s about Trump and the wall. It really is more than that. It’s about whether or not we are in control of our borders or not. And there are a lot of national security implications with that. So this, we do take a very serious issue.
There is border-wall funding in place. The question is, do we have enough to make the kind of progress we want to make in securing the border. And that’s where we believe, within the spending caps, more resources are needed, and those debate—that’s going on right now. Dick Shelby, Rodney Frelinghuysen, and their counterparts are negotiating this while we speak, right now. So our hope is that we can get a successful conclusion. At the end of the day, because the Senate has 60 votes on this stuff, the White House and the Senate Democrats in particular are going to have to find common ground in order to get an appropriation bill that we can agree to and move.
Kane: But Trump seems to want this shutdown.
Ryan: I don’t think that’s the case.
Kane: Well, Trump wants the wall.
Ryan: He wants the border security. He doesn’t want it shut down, he wants to get border security.
Kane: He called, with our good friend Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, the other day. In an interview, he said, “That issue is a total winner.” He believes that it is a winner for him, both in terms of the border wall, immigration, and if there’s a shutdown, he believes he can win. And that seems to indicate to a lot of us that he sort of wants one.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, we met with him in the Oval a couple of days ago. He thinks the issue of border security is a winner. I don’t know that—I don’t know what he said to Jake, but I don’t think he sees a shutdown as a winner. I think he sees border security as a winner. Look, I just see it as the right thing to do because it is necessary for lots of reasons. We don’t want to have a shutdown. I have no interest in doing that. That makes no sense. I would like to see progress on border security, which, by the way, back in—what was it—’06, we passed the Secure Fence Act and Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and everybody else voted for that. I voted for that.
So this used to be a bipartisan issue. It has, all of a sudden, become partisan for ridiculous reasons, in my opinion. And it should be bipartisan, securing our border.
Kane: Were you a staffer in ’95, ’96 during those shutdowns?
Kane: Were you sent home or were you deemed —?
Ryan: I don’t remember. [LAUGHTER] Let’s see. I was the LD for Brownback in those days. And so, I think we did send a bunch of people home, but I wasn’t one of them.
Kane: Do you ever think—it was early October 2015, Boehner had already sort of dropped the mike and said he was going to leave. Your friend Kevin McCarthy was going to be the speaker, it seemed.
Kane: Do you ever think what would have happened if instead of McCarthy falling short, if you had just sort of stayed at Ways and Means?
Ryan: Yeah, I certainly thought about it. I was going to give his nominating speech to the conference. And he called me 10 minutes before the conference, said, “I don’t have the votes. I’m not doing this. I’m going to nominate you.” I’m like, “The hell you are.” [LAUGHTER] No, excuse me.
Kane: It’s okay. It’s for a livestream and you can curse.
Ryan: I just wanted to get out of town. So I really didn’t want to do the job. I always wanted to be the Ways and Means chair. It’s why I never ran for the Senate. I wanted to be Ways and Means chair because of the issues I really care about. I loved where I was. I’m not a hyper-ambitious guy. I really actually am not. And I just wanted to go to Ways and Means. I went home. We had a one-week recess, and the pressure kind of mounted, and then it became kind of clear to me that, just out of a sense of duty, I needed to do it.
What I liked about the moment was I could do it on my terms. This is the benefit that Nancy does not now have. And I think it’s regretful. I got to go and be speaker on entirely my terms. And our members knew I didn’t need it, didn’t necessarily want it, but was happy to do it joyfully and happily. I’m really glad I did. I’m glad, I’m happy I did this. But I got to go into it in a situation where I didn’t have to conditionalize it on anybody else’s conditions but my own. And that was a great benefit to me, huge benefit to me.
Kane: Do you think then that she’s sort of undercut some of her own power?
Ryan: I think she’ll regret that.
Kane: Because she’s making deals. She’s giving out committee assignments.
Ryan: Yeah. Look, it’s not my job . I don’t want to undercut her or mess with her, because I understand what she’s going into. But it was an extreme benefit to me, with the various caucuses, and conferences, and factions we had, that I didn’t need to do it. And if they push me too far, I can just leave. It was helpful to me.
Kane: Did you ever come close to just leaving, other than now?
Ryan: I never had to. The thing is, I’m a conservative. And Jim Jordan and I do not agree on tactics, for the most part, but we generally agree on philosophy. We generally agree on policy. I’m just using J.J. as an example. He was the head of the Freedom Caucus at the time.
Kane: Sure, yeah.
Ryan: And so, they never really second guessed my convictions. And they always knew where I wanted to go. And the reason I think we were successful as a majority, and passing all of these bills—we passed everything we wanted to pass. The healthcare bill, we passed.
Kane: You passed it out of the House.
Ryan: Out of the House, that’s what I mean. Out of the House. And everything else, we pretty much got into law. I think that the key, key, key thing was, get everyone to agree ahead of time, what’s the plan, what are we going to do, what do we believe, what do we want to achieve, what’s the plan. And then, literally, lay out a timeline, and then hold everyone accountable to it. And so as the sessions went on in year one, two, and three, I just kept going back to members, like, “Remember, we agreed to do this. Remember, this was the strategy.”
Like appropriations. Some people didn’t like the appropriations strategy that we had launched last May. Chuck, and Mitch, and I basically decided, “Here’s how we want to proceed to get actually get appropriations back on the track.” Some people didn’t like that. I said, “You guys, remember, we agreed to do it this way. This is the strategy to actually write these bills and get them in law.”
And so, organizing a conference on predetermined outcomes and timelines, and getting buy-in ahead of time, allows you to hold people accountable to fulfilling that obligation throughout the entire session. That, to me, is the absolute way to organize a session, or in a caucus. They called it “caucus,” we called it “conference.”
Kane: Sure. Do you worry that in sort of the long view of things, you passed a lot of bills—and history is not going to say, “Oh, my gosh, they passed five appropriations bills on time.” Do you worry about the big issues of immigration, debt, that you—[OVERLAPPING]
Ryan: Those are the two ones that you just had to mention that I think are the two regrets that I wish we could have gotten done.
Kane: Which is bigger?
Ryan: Everything—well, debt. But—
Kane: It is?
Ryan: Yeah. But let me back up for a second.
Ryan: I think history is going to be very good to this majority. Why? The tax system was atrocious. I spent my adult life working on tax reform. Ever since I did it with Jack Kemp, working on the issue. We really did have the worst tax system in the industrialized world, and it was hollowing out American competitiveness. We have now put underneath the economy a far, far stronger foundation for a healthy economy and growth because of that.
I was extremely worried about our national security posture, meaning our military. We have now put underneath that a much stronger foundation. What I have been saying to my staff all along, and our members, is our job in the majority is to improve the health and the antibodies of the American economy, of the American system. So what we were aiming to do was strengthen America’s resilience, America’s health, America’s antibodies, so whatever comes our way—you know, I’ve been through 9/11 and TARP and all these things—whatever comes our way, we are stronger and better prepared for those things.
I really believe that we have done that in this last two-year session. So there are so many things that we’ve done—I was working on enterprise zones when I was 23 years old. It’s the law of the land now. We call them Opportunity Zones. I’m so excited about so many of the things we’ve done. But go up to your question—I’m not trying to filibuster you.
Kane: It’s 21 trillion.
Ryan: To go to your question, it is debt and immigration are the two big issues that if we get right in this country, we will have a great 21st century—if we get those two issues right. What are those issues? Specifically with debt , it is healthcare reform. Healthcare reform is healthcare entitlements. Healthcare entitlements—aging of baby boomers, health inflation—that is the driver of the debt that’s got to get dealt with.
I really believe the bill we passed out of the House is flawed as it was written because we had to use Senate rules. It was still excellent legislation, which would have made a huge difference on healthcare itself and on debt and deficits. It’s the one that got away.
On immigration, I really liked—I call it “the Curbelo bill”; it was Goodlatte, too . The immigration compromise bill that I put on the floor in July, which satisfied the president’s four pillars.
Kane: The one that got a majority of Republicans, a bare majority.
Ryan: Bare, yes.
Kane: But no other Democrats.
Ryan: That’s right. So I think the Democrats decided to take their toys and go away, meaning they weren’t going to engage with us on this issue. I think they felt they had a political advantage for the moment. There were a lot of Democrats on the floor who told us that this is a pretty good bill.
So, if we can put the partisan knives down on the immigration issue—which both sides do—we fix that, and we get the debt under control, there’s no stopping our country. Because we already have, I think, a good foundation for economic growth. I think the Fed is, by the way, on the right track, normalizing. We’ve got a regulatory posture that’s pretty good. We’ve got a great tax system in place. You get debt and immigration right, we are—the fundamentals are in a good place. Those are the two things that’s got to get done.
Kane: If the tax bill was so good, why has it not resonated with the public and why did it not sell in the midterm election?
Ryan: It actually did, in many ways. We pushed it hard from the House, but it was not the issue that was on the front of people’s minds at the time. I think—
Kane: Was that issue on the front of Donald J. Trump’s mind?
Ryan: I think the immigration issue is more on the front of his mind. I think the caravan was, you know, on TV a lot. My own view was I would rather talk about the economy and how successful it was.
When we had the opportunity to talk about those things, it was spectacular . I was with Randy Hultgren, who lost the district that adjoins mine, at Scot Forge, a really cool company that’s an ESOP in Illinois and Wisconsin. And they just went through this big tutorial about how successful tax reform was for them. More benefits, more jobs, hiring more people, buying more equipment. Everywhere I went across the country. I mean, in three weeks in October, I did 50 cities, 12 states, 25 members. And everywhere we went, there were phenomenal stories about how tax reform was really improving the economic growth in businesses and take-home pay. Good story to tell; it got overshadowed.
Kane: How many times did you try to tell the president?
Ryan: I don’t know. [LAUGHS]
Kane: You lost count?
Ryan: Yeah, I lost count.
Kane: You literally lost count. Because if you look at the moment you took the speaker’s gavel, I think you guys were at 247.
Ryan: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Kane: And you’re passing off the conference to McCarthy, and it’s 201 or—[OVERLAPPING]
Ryan: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Kane: How much of that blame falls on you?
Ryan: I’m not—well, okay, I thought you were going to ask me a different question. [LAUGHTER]
Kane: You assumed it was going to be Trump?
Kane: You assumed—[OVERLAPPING]
Ryan: —Trump questions.
Kane: Well, then, okay, answer both. How much of it falls on you, how much of it falls on Trump?
Ryan: I think history has a lot to do with it. Historically, it’s a 32-seat loss. We were close—we’re somewhere around there. I think that was part of the problem. And if you look at the crunch of the numbers, it’s a few things. First of all, suburban voters, that’s the number one liability we experienced. Pennsylvania redistricting. And California just defies logic to me. We had a lot of wins that night. We were only down 26 seats the night of the election, and three weeks later we lost basically every contested California race. This election system they have, I can’t begin to understand what ballot harvesting is. So I think California—
Kane: Do you think there’s something wrong with the count?
Ryan: No, I just think it’s weird. I mean, in Wisconsin, you know, we knew like the next day. You know, Scott Walker, my friend, you know, I was sad to see him lose, but we accepted the results on Wednesday. So, you know, I think we had California—their system is bizarre. I still don’t, frankly, understand it. There are a lot of races there we should have won. And we got massively outspent—I mean, big-time outspent. You get a couple billionaires dropping $100 million on your head, and that leaves a mark. And so we got massively outspent. We had midterm headwinds, which are traditional things. And we do have to face up that there’s a suburban voter issue that we have to attend to, which is what our concern was all along.
Kane: One of your close friends is Elise Stefanik from New York. She was an advisor to you on the VP campaign 2012. She told me a week or two ago that she’s enraged about what has happened with women—both women voters and just running away from the Republican Party, and the number of women left in the conference. It’s fallen from 23—which isn’t necessarily a good number, but historically good for Republicans—down to 13. You guys elected one new Republican woman. What can your successor, what can your party do to go out and find women to run and appeal to women, suburban women?
Ryan: Get Elise to go back to doing a great job. She was—and we put her in charge of recruiting.
Kane: She said she doesn’t want to do that anymore.
Ryan: I know. But she needs to change her mind.
Kane: She’s that mad .
Ryan: I know.
Kane: She says she wants to go—[OVERLAPPING]
Ryan: I’m obviously a big fan of Elise. I think she’s one of the most talented members of Congress we have, and I see her as a big part of our future. She did a great job recruiting. We had spectacular women running.
Kane: But then why, what does the party need to do to back that up? She recruited over 100 women to run.
Ryan: Yeah. Look at Maria Salazar. I thought she was going to win, Maria. This is against Donna Shalala.
Kane: I was down there in that area, late October.
Ryan: Yeah, I thought she was a spectacular candidate. And again, the headwinds of the midterm and all the other factors, I think, you know, washed against us. Just like they did against the Democrats in 2010. Those things happen. It doesn’t mean you give up; it means you go back at it, and you go and recruit great candidates, like Elise did, and get them to run again. And so that’s just kind of how I see it.
Kane: On the California thing, when you said “ballot harvesting,” I’m no expert on California—
Ryan: Neither am I. I don’t even begin to understand it .
Kane: What is that? What is ballot harvesting?
Ryan: You know, you should do a story on it. Honestly, I don’t really understand what it is. You don’t have to—the way the absentee ballot program used to work and works now, it just seems pretty loosey-goose. Point being, when you have candidates that win the absentee ballot vote, win the day of the vote, and then lose three weeks later because of provisionals, that’s really bizarre. And so I just think that’s a very, very strange outcome. When you win the absentee ballots and you win the in-person vote, where I come from, you win the election. If you then—and you’re up six points or something like that, it’s really bizarre. So my only point is, I’m not saying there’s anything nefarious about it, because I just don’t know, but we believed we were up about six seats in California the night of the election, now I think we lost just about every single one of those.
Kane: But would you want—I don’t know—[OVERLAPPING]
Ryan: States are in charge of their election systems. So—
Kane: —the state attorney general to review this?
Ryan: No, I’m not getting to that. My only point is we—
Kane: You know Xavier Becerra. You could call him up.
Ryan: Yeah, I’m sure he’ll love to take my call [LAUGHTER]. All I’m saying is, we took it on the chin in California, and we took it on the chin in Pennsylvania, and we had a midterm drag against us. That’s my point.
Kane: Okay. Mitt Romney has been a mentor in a lot of ways to you. You’re still close friends.
Ryan: Good friend, yeah.
Kane: Did he call you up and ask your advice and was there ever a hesitation where you said, “Mitt, get the hell out of here”?
Ryan: That was about a year ago. Yeah, we’re good friends. We talk all the time.
You know what I said? He knows my phase of life. He called me up the day I announced. He said, “What? The one friend I’ve got in Washington and you’re leaving?” And then he said, “I was going to get a two-bedroom apartment and offer you a room so you don’t have to sleep in your office anymore.” You know, he’s got a pretty good sense of humor.
Kane: Probably would have been a big apartment.
Ryan: Yeah. Right.
Kane: He’s got a little bit of coin.
Ryan: Yeah. He’s going to live on the Hill, I think.
He still has a lot of public service left in him, and I think it’s great that he’s coming. And I think he feels a sense of civic duty. I think with John McCain passing, for example, Mitt believes that there is a role for him in our party, in being a statesman and a standard bearer in our party. I’ve encouraged him to go on the Foreign Relations Committee to help—I was not a big traveler in my earlier career, but when I became speaker I decided to do some landmark codels—for instance, go to NATO, reassure NATO how much we’re supportive of NATO. Things like that. I think Mitt can do a lot of good for our country by serving the Foreign Relations Committee and representing us abroad. So things like that I think are in his interest and in all of our interests, and I’ve encouraged him to do that.
Kane: Should we look to him to play some of that John McCain role?
Ryan: Yeah. They are very different people with different style. I wouldn’t look to him for that style, I would look to him as a leader who will be a standard bearer of our principles.
Kane: Okay. What was that, the loss of 2012? I remember going to Iowa when you spoke at the governor’s birthday party—
Ryan: Yeah, Terry’s. Yeah, given the Cheesehead with the mustache on it?
Kane: Yeah, that’s right. And you sort of opened up that night and talked about that 2012 defeat, and it kind of stung you.
Ryan: It’s the only election I ever lost.
Kane: Yeah. Well, how did that—how did this month feel compared to that month? You weren’t on the ballot this time, but how do those two losses feel?
Ryan: Different. When you’re speaker, you get really invested in the members—you get to know them and their families, you learn about their goals and their aspirations—and you become very emotionally attached to people. You really do. You know, if you’re a committee chairman, you don’t get that. You get that if you’re a leader.
And so, I was very worried about a lot of my friends—good people in Congress, who were there for the right reasons. And by the way, the kind of members we lost are like the best of us.
Kane: Yeah, Curbelo. You were touting Carlos Curbelo’s—
Ryan: Oh, I love Carlos Curbelo. Such a great member, in Congress for all of the right reasons. An important part of our party. And I obviously hope he sticks with it. So Carlos is a perfect example, and our wives are friends and, you know, we’re friends.
Ryan: And you really feel for it. So in that kind of an election, you worry about the human side of it. In the 2012 election, it was the policy trajectories that really unnerved me, which was—I didn’t like the direction Obama was taking the country. And we clearly had something else mapped out, and to see the divergent trajectories was really unnerving to me, from an intellectual standpoint. And emotionally, from losing, of course, I felt worse for Mitt than—because I went back to Congress. But in this last election, I don’t see a big divergent trajectory because we still have the Senate, we still have the White House. It was, to me, more personal and emotional. Carlos is a perfect example, seeing Carlos lose.
Kane: Saudi Arabia. The Senate voted yesterday in pretty strong symbolic rebuke. Sort of two questions. There’s not a lot of time left. Is the House considering doing anything on this? And what do you believe happened?
Ryan: Okay. So, I don’t want to get into classified, other than we don’t know all of the details that one would like to know. The circumstantial evidence is pretty strong. Let me first say, just from our branch of government, that we stand in solidarity with you and the fourth estate, seriously. I mean that very seriously. And I believe in realpolitik, I think there’s a time and place for realpolitik, but only if—and I said this yesterday first —is only if your foreign policy speaks with very clear moral clarity to begin with. And we have to do a better job of that.
I don’t think the Yemen resolution is a smart way to go. We had a compromised resolution on this that we passed in the House a little while ago. I think this is exactly what the Magnitsky Act is for. This is why we wrote the Magnitsky Act. And there’s more to do on that front. And the administration, I think, should do more on that front.
So, yes, we have lots of strategic interest alignment with the Saudis; no two ways about it. For the Gulf, for Iran, for Israel, for everything. And those aren’t going to go away and those will persist. Still, we can speak with moral clarity. We can take actions that address these issues so that we’re really clear to the world what we believe and to dictators, you can’t do this.
Kane: Who has to speak with moral clarity—
Ryan: Well, that’s why I think Congress has to—
Kane: Does Congress have to—
Kane: The president doesn’t seem to be doing it.
Ryan: I know, that’s why I think Magnitsky is the way to go and I think it’s a smarter tool to use and it’s what we designed the tool for and I think Congress can play a very constructive role in that.
Kane: Okay, and that falls to your successors?
Ryan: Well, yeah. We’ve got like two weeks left.
Kane: Margaret from Twitter asks about the Trump ban back when he was banning The Washington Post from—
Ryan: Oh, which ban are you talking about?
Kane: And this goes to CNN and Acosta. Has he created open hostility towards the media and is there some sort of role that Congress can do?
Ryan: Well, I’ve given a little thought to this. I would say a couple of things. He does create some hostility with the Jim Acosta thing but it’s a little bit of a two-way street. We, in Congress, lead by example. You go to every one of my press conferences. I always see you back there. You and DeBonis—I know where you sit.
Kane: Yes, you gave us the final question once after—
Ryan: Yeah, that’s right—
Kane: What else?
Ryan: So obviously, we should lead by example by keeping ourselves open to show that that’s how we should conduct these things, which is what we do. But I think this goes to a broader point, and honestly, I wish I could have had more time to think about these things. I’m looking forward to having more time to think about these things. And what I mean when I say this is the tribalism is just getting out of control and I see the 21st century business model—I’m not trying to cast aspersions here but the 21st century business model of getting hits and clicks and eyeballs on cable news, on websites has created this incentive structure; a marketplace where polarization sells. You go to some of the leading websites out there and there are these algorithms that prey on division and polarization and people’s fears and that tribalism in our country to me is our undoing. And as conservatives, we always believed that identity politics was a Saul Alinsky tool of the left. Now, it’s being practiced on the right. So it’s being practiced widespread and those of us who abhor identity politics, which are center-right and center-left people, we have got to figure out how the heck do we make—what I call the old Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan aspirational-inclusive politics good again?
How do we make that successful? How do we make it so that the political consultants telling candidates, “Do this; don’t do that.” That they say, “Do this aspirational . This works; it sells.” How do we make that cool again? And I don’t know the life of me the example . So yes, the president has a hostile relationship with the press; no two ways about it. But I think this is what the new norm is in this day and age and we’ve got to figure out what the heck we do about it.
Kane: One of the new norms also seems to be plea deals and such. I just was told from inside that Michael Cohen is going to plead to another count and this one is lying to Congress about his connections to Russia. Is this Congress capable of handling this investigation or are we just sitting back waiting for Bob Mueller to produce some sort of report?
Ryan: I’ve got this question from you guys for the last year. Bob Mueller has been left alone. I think he’s going to continue to be left alone. He’s going to finish his job whenever that is and he will be able to do his job, as he should, in its full, with respect to Russia and intelligence. We’ve done thorough investigations on this issue. Both chambers have and obviously, I think we’re capable of doing that. But with respect to Mueller, I’m not worried about his ability to do a complete investigation and do his job.
Kane: This has been a struggle for a lot of us because you say you’re not worried about it.
Kane: At the same time, this president fired the FBI director. He pushed Jeff Sessions out at AG. Just yesterday, he told The New York Post that he’s open—he’s not going to take the Manafort pardon off the table.
Ryan: Like I said, if I was really, really stressed about Bob Mueller, I’d do something. I’m not worried about Bob Mueller.
Kane: Why do you—
Ryan: I just have good reason to believe that he is—
Kane: Because of conversations you’ve directly had with the president?
Ryan: I don’t want to get into that. I just don’t think Bob Mueller is going to—I don’t think he’s going to be interfered with.
Kane: You don’t?
Ryan: I really don’t. I believe he will be left to do his job.
Kane: Have you directly told the president of what the fallout would be?
Ryan: I have a successful relationship with the president because I keep a lot of our conversations between the two of us. By the way, that would be my advice to Nancy as well and to Chuck, which is government still has to work. Just because we’ve got a divided government, it’s got to work and the branches have to have some kind of a relationship and it is far more successful from my experience. Look, we have a lot of heated conversations about lots of things. But if you keep those conversations between two people and don’t go talk about it, you’re going to be more successful in achieving your goals and achieving outcomes that you seek than going out and posturing to the media and scoring cheap political points. So that’s always been my attitude towards this and that would be my advice for my successors.
Kane: But you’ve got somebody lying to Congress; they’re admitting they’re lying to Congress now. Is there anything—
Ryan: Cohen, you mean?
Kane: Yeah, Cohen.
Ryan: I just heard that now. Well, he should be prosecuted to the extent of the law. That’s why we put people under oath. So just back it up for a second. Lying to Congress; that means he came and testified. That means we swore him under oath. That means we put him on the record. That means we did our job. That means we did our oversight and the reason—I just heard this for the first time—is because Congress did its job in conducting oversight of the Executive Branch and brought somebody in to testify under oath under penalty of a felony.
Kane: A few years back, you sort of took on a role—becoming House Speaker, you sort of took on a role as sort of a moral compass, a moral conscience of the Republican Party and you frequently would chastise then-candidate Trump.
Kane: You have said now that you just keep those conversations quiet. Some critics, some old friends of yours feel like that has been an abandonment of the Paul Ryan that they knew—
Ryan: Yeah. Pete Wehner is a close friend of mine; still is—
Kane: Bob Costa has him on speed dial—[OVERLAPPING]
Ryan: Pete’s a really good friend of mine.
Kane: Do you guys still talk? That group of friends?
Ryan: Yeah, Yuval and Pete and I are pretty close friends. I’m in governing mode . In these jobs, you have to be willing to take a lot of slings and arrows if you want to succeed and to me, succeeding—I’ve been saying this for the last two years; our job, as I see it, is to build up the country’s resilience, its antibodies, its health, its strength. So that whatever happens, we are stronger, better prepared as a nation for that. And making government work, in a unified government, getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s the third unified government we’ve had in like 100 years and really, the first time where we weren’t in like a constant war footing , where we had a chance of passing a domestic agenda that can make a huge difference in people’s lives. We ran on an agenda, we had an agenda. I laid out this big Gantt chart for the president for a two-year agenda—
Kane: By the way, Gantt chart—
Ryan: Yeah, it’s a—
Kane: You told us this at the retreat.
Ryan: Well, the guy built skyscrapers so I figured he’d relate to it and he did, actually. And the point I’m trying to make is I saw a chance of getting a lot of good policy done for the country that was in a long time in coming. And we got a great deal of it done. I’m very gratified and what I learned was working with the president on a confidential basis, bringing concerns on lots of different issues; personality issues, policy issues, temperament issues. You get a better outcome by keeping it that way than going out and posturing. Their job—let’s just say, some of my friends, their job is to go on TV and be a pundit. That’s not my job. My job is to try and make things work, is to try and get good outcomes for the American people, is to pass good legislation, to improve people’s lives, and to get good decisions made at all levels of government so that we can advance this country’s interests.
Kane: So they would look at that and say that you’re just—you’ve given the tax cut over the sort of country’s moral values. What about Russia and Ukraine right now?
Ryan: I just don’t see it that way.
Kane: Should we do anything about Russia’s—
Ryan: Yeah, we should help Ukraine more. We should show that the consequences are we sell them more weapon’s packages, we give them more aid.
Kane: In terms of your legacy, what do you want it to be? What do you see it as?
Ryan: I’m not one of these big ego legacy guys. I like to think that I took the opportunity I was given and made a positive difference in people’s lives. There are two things I’m most proud about. Frankly, as a congressman, one of the cool things you get to do is you actually help people with their personal problems. I think of Christy Fields . This young girl, she was a cheerleader in Milton, Wisconsin, 17-year-old. She had a heart problem. She needed a pacemaker that was only approved in Europe, wasn’t approved here and it was going to keep her alive and she was going to die. And so you cut through the red tape, you get this compassionate use waiver and she gets the pacemaker. Her mom—she’s a single mom, very low-income. We get the company to donate it. We get the doctors at Mayo to do it for free. You can do things like that as a congressman. It’s really gratifying. So I’m proud of some of those achievements and then I’m also proud of getting our party to recognize debt . I’m proud of the fact that the House since I was budget chair, every year—every session has passed a budget that shows how we would balance the budget and how we would pay off the debt.
Now, the Senate never passed those budgets and that’s frustrating to me but the House has said specifically, “Here’s what we would do to balance the budget and pay off the debt.” And I was ostracized when I first put this stuff out there back in 2007; ostracized. My own party said, “Run away from Ryan.” Now, we’ve passed those budgets every session in a row. I did it, Tom Price did it, Diane Black did it. And so I think I’ve moved the ball on that issue. I feel like not as far as I’d wanted to, but a great distance. And then on the poverty issues. People don’t really report this too much but social impact bonds, opportunity zones, I think our members have gotten more attuned to this issue. It’s the stuff that Bob Woodson and I preach about. It’s the stuff I learned from Jack Kemp. Evidence-based policymaking, we’ve made a really good impact on that. And then there are just certain things, like rebuilding the military and the tax system. Those are policy achievements I’m proudest of but what I think it was getting our party, our members in the House, in particular, to agree to an agenda, to run on an agenda, have an election on agenda and win.
Now, House elections obviously, get overshadowed by presidential elections but we still ran on this better way agenda; we put it into place. We put most of these things into law and we think people are really better off as a result of it and that, I think, is what I’m probably most proudest of.
Kane: All right, we’re just about out of time. Do you have big vacation plans?
Ryan: I probably shouldn’t say this. My wife turns 50 pretty soon and so she for some reason thinks it’s cold in Wisconsin in the winter. [LAUGHTER] So I’m taking her to the beach very soon after we’re done and then I’m going to do some hunting.
Kane: You’ve also waited tables at Tortilla Coast. Chairman of Budget Committee, Ways and Means, House Speaker. Which of those would you do again?
Ryan: [LAUGHTER] Waiting tablets was a great experience. I loved that. There was never a job I didn’t like. I worked at McDonald’s; I loved working at McDonald’s. I always liked my jobs. There’s never a job I didn’t like so I’m hoping to do some different jobs that are different than what I’ve done before.
Kane: Final question, both related to green. If you could be the next head coach or general manager of the Green Bay Packers or ambassador to Ireland—
Ryan: You and I have talked about this before.
Kane: We’ve talked about Ireland, I know.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s the only other really government job I think I would aspire to in my ‘60s is to be the ambassador to Ireland and I think one day, unification will occur and I think that would be pretty cool. General manager or president of the Packers? The president of the Packers is a better job than the general manager of the Packers. But Mark Murphy is doing a good job. He’s a great guy.
Kane: And that is the only other job you ever expect in government?
Ryan: Well, it’s just one of the jobs that I openly think I would want to take one day down the road.
Kane: All right, everybody. Thank you very much. This might be one of his last interviews. Save it. Come back to WashingtonPost.com to watch it for the highlights. Thank you all for being here and thank you, Speaker Ryan.
Ryan: You bet.
Kane: Thanks so much.
Ryan: Appreciate it.