By Kelsey Snell and Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will not campaign with or defend Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump through the November election, according to multiple lawmakers who participated in a conference call with House GOP lawmakers Monday morning.
Ryan’s move — and the blunt assessment of the race he and other congressional leaders delivered during the call — underscored the perilous choice Republican officials now face in the wake of Friday’s release of a 2005 videotape in which Trump made lewd comments about women.
They can remain in line with their nominee, which will please their base but could alienate swing voters critical to maintaining their hold on Congress. Or they could renounce him and offend Republicans eager for a direct confrontation with both Clinton and her husband.
For his part, the speaker — who cancelled an appearance with Trump after the videotape surfaced Friday — did neither. He won’t publicly campaign with Trump, but he also did not rescind his endorsement of his party’s controversial nominee or back away from his pledge to vote for him.
Trump lashed out at Ryan Monday, saying he “should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee.” Within a matter of minutes, more than 6,300 people had favorited the tweet.
“Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee,” Trump tweeted.
The growing rift between GOP establishment leaders and Trump, who is now emboldened given his assertive debate performance Sunday night, has moved the party into uncharted territory in the final weeks of an already-volatile and unpredictable presidential contest.
Both Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, took to the airwaves Monday to make it clear Trump intended to remain on the offensive for the duration of the campaign.
And Trump’s senior communications adviser Jason Miller tweeted “nothing’s changed” after the congressional call because his candidate has always been a Washington outsider.
In an email Monday Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said “there is no update in his position at this time” when it came to endorsing Trump. But she added, “The speaker is going to spend the next month focused entirely on protecting our congressional majorities.”
In withdrawing his public support from Trump, Ryan is essentially giving other Republican lawmakers license to do the same if they oppose Trump’s statements and are concerned about their own reelection chances. The Wisconsin Republican canceled an appearance with Trump after the Post first reported the 2005 tape . Ryan said he was “disgusted” by the comments but did not at that time withdraw his support for Trump
“You all need to do what’s best for you and your district,” Ryan said, according to two participants, who asked not to be named because of the private nature the call.
With this move, Ryan at least partially joined a growing group of high-profile Republican lawmakers who have renounced their support of Trump following the disclosure Friday by The Washington Post of an 11-year-old videotape of the businessman talking casually about kissing and groping women. That group includes Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona, both in tough reelection races.
Republicans who participated in the post-debate conference call Monday morning are becoming increasingly worried about their chances of holding onto their 30-seat House majority as Trump lags dangerously behind Hillary Clinton in the polls. One described the tone of the call as “nervous.”
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey released Monday showed Trump taking a big dip following the release of the videotape, with Clinton leading Trump by double digits among likely voters, 46 to 35 percent, in a four-way contest. Democrats had a seven-point lead on the question of which party voters would like to see control Congress.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, briefed lawmakers on the House battlegrounds, warning the “ground is shifting,” according to lawmaker on the call. Walden said Republicans should continue to poll their races and that winning their races was equivalent to “landing an airplane in a hurricane: ‘You have to trust the instruments.’”
The speaker plans to spend the next month, he told lawmakers on the conference call, “only campaigning for House seats and not going to promote or defend Trump,” according to a GOP lawmaker. Ryan plans to campaign in 17 states and 42 cities in October to help preserve his majority.
The House GOP call was an opportunity for members to check in after a chaotic weekend where dozens of GOP lawmakers revoked their support for Trump after the release of a 11-year-old recording of Trump using graphic language to describe kissing and groping women against their will. Lawmakers spent the weekend fielding a barrage of questions about their support for Trump without any formal guidance from party leaders.
Ryan typically holds weekly sessions for his members, referring to the confabs as “family meetings” where members are invited to speak their minds. The meetings have become a mainstay for a House GOP that has been plagued by infighting and crisis for more than a year.
The Washington Post’s Paul Kane contributed to this report.