Politics

Paul Ryan’s Way-Too-Belated Confession

From the comfort of retirement, the former speaker remembers that he really didn’t like Trump after all.
July 12, 2019
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(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Now he tells us.

Even after leaving office, Paul Ryan has been notably and frustratingly reticent about commenting on the president. But he opened up for Politico’s Tim Alberta. As a Washington Post  preview reports:

Now out of office and trading in his power suits for a blue vest, Ryan is back to critiquing Trump in unflattering terms in conversations with Alberta, who writes the former speaker could not stand the idea of another two years with the president and saw retirement as an “escape hatch,” in Alberta’s words.

“We’ve gotten so numbed by it all,” Ryan says. “Not in government, but where we live our lives, we have a responsibility to try and rebuild. Don’t call a woman a ‘horse face.’ Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t cheat on anything. Be a good person. Set a good example.” 

And he doesn’t see things getting better. 

Ryan says he sees the presidency getting worse, with Trump determined to govern and campaign on his terms, rejecting calls from other Republicans to moderate his message in 2020. 

“Those of us around him really helped to stop him from making bad decisions. All the time,” Ryan says. “We helped him make much better decisions, which were contrary to kind of what his knee-jerk reaction was. Now I think he’s making some of these knee-jerk reactions.” 

Well, better late than never, I guess. If Ryan had spoken out earlier, it might have made a difference, but we’ll never really know. And, if history is any guide, he may tack back again toward Trumpian appeasement.

Here’s what I said when Ryan said when he stepped down

It seems almost superfluous to point out that the GOP is Trump’s party now, because it has been Trump’s party since 2016.

But in a sense, it is also Ryan’s party, because his decision to make a Faustian bargain with Trump has also shaped conservatism’s trajectory.

It reflected, but didn’t fully capture, just how disappointed I had been by Ryan’s surrender to Trumpism. I am old enough to remember when he was the future of the conservative movement, but had to watch as he became one of Trump’s chief enablers. But worse than that was his silence; his refusal to call out the insults, slurs, ignorance, and bigotry of the president. 

Ryan was a decent man in an indecent era, but he chose to lack all conviction, even while the worst were full of passionate intensity. 

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In his extraordinary new book, American Carnage, Tim Alberta captures Ryan’s tortured path from outraged Trump opponent to quiescent enabler. Alberta knows conservativism and he understands Ryan, which makes him the ideal chronicler of Ryan’s tragedy; he recounts the steps and the nature of the bargain in painful detail.

In Alberta’s telling, Ryan had been repeatedly reassured by his friend Reince Priebus that there was no way that Trump could win the nomination. “Not gonna happen,” he would say.  (Priebus used to tell me the same thing, using the same words.) When it began to dawn on the two men that Trump would, indeed, win, the news sent Ryan “into a panic.” He recognized that a Trumpian takeover would undo all of his efforts to remake the GOP “to reach a broader swath of a diversifying nation.”

Ryan was in an awkward position. He was not only speaker, but also chairman of the upcoming GOP convention, and so felt he had to remain neutral. But as Trump gained momentum, Ryan became increasingly outspoken.  Alberta writes:

He denounced Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, saying it’s “not what this party stands for, and more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.” He slammed him for his strange hesitation in disavowing David Duke and the KKK. He blasted him for suggesting there would be ‘riots’ in Cleveland if he were denied the nomination.  

Alberta described Ryan working himself “into a lather” and “whispering to Republican allies about Trump’s instability and immorality… that he was ethically bankrupt and dangerously divisive.” But ultimately, writes Alberta, Ryan’s concerns “were shared by his peers in the governing class,” but not by primary voters.

For a brief time after Trump clinched the nomination, Ryan withheld his endorsement, offering to step down as convention chairman if Trump asked. But Ryan’s position foreshadowed what was to come later.

 “The Speaker’s performance was that of a political Hamlet, pondering the existential ramifications of subjugating himself to the evil king,” writes Alberta. 

When the two finally met at a meeting brokered by Priebus, Ryan tried to show Trump a PowerPoint presentation on the nation’s debt tsunami, but Trump brushed him aside.  

Even after Ryan capitulated and endorsed Trump, his support was notably tentative. After the Access Hollywood tape was released, writes Alberta, he felt that “his worst fears were being realized.” Ryan took the dramatic step of disinviting Trump from a rally in Wisconsin and the next week held a conference call with members of the GOP House. Ryan announced that he would no longer be defending Trump “not now, not in the future,” but stopped short of actually withdrawing his endorsement.

As he finished the call, recounts Alberta, Ryan was uneasy that his colleagues would be upset that he hadn’t gone further. But listening in, “Ryan was stunned to realize that the opposite was true: He had gone too far. Some members were furious that Ryan had dared to publicly condemn Trump. They felt that he was abandoning the party by abandoning the nominee. In their eyes, he was waving a white flag of surrender.”

His attempt to distance himself from Trump had put Ryan in an untenable position. The grassroots was “ablaze with indignation,” and members of the Freedom Caucus began to plot a move to oust Ryan. If Trump lost, the conservative base would revolt and demand Ryan’s ouster; if he won, Trump would be the executioner. Somehow Ryan survived. But at a massive cost.

After Trump’s victory, Ryan made his peace with the new president. “Kiss the ring,” his friends advised him. Tell Trump all the great things he could do for him. But it was never easy. In Alberta’s telling, Trump calls Ryan a “f—ing Boy Scout,” while Ryan continually bumped up against Trump’s impenetrable ignorance. 

“I told myself I gotta have a relationship with this guy to help him get his mind right,” Ryan recalls. “Because, I’m telling you, he didn’t know anything about government . . . I wanted to scold him all the time.”

The man who was once the future of the Republican Party became Trump’s wing man. He got his tax cuts, but his vision for the future of conservatism was pulverized. 

Alberta is an astute student of Ryan and Ryanism. More than a year ago, he wrote “The Tragedy of Paul Ryan,” in which he described the “harsh reality is that he might be remembered more for accommodating the impulses of the 45th president than for crafting a generational overhaul of the tax code.” 

This is a political obituary of Ryan’s own writing. His silence in the face of Trump’s indignities—and his observance of “exquisite presidential leadership,” a line that will live in infamy—would be less remarkable had he not first established himself as one of Congress’ good guys, someone whose sense of principle and decency informed his objections to Trump’s candidacy in the first place.

His conclusion seems unavoidable. Last December, as Ryan stepped down, I speculated about an alternative reality. 

Perhaps it’s naive to think that Ryan could have stemmed the tide of the GOP’s capitulation, but it remains a tantalizing what-might-have-been. Ryan could have articulated an alternative vision of conservatism, untainted by Trump’s ugly xenophobia, recklessness and isolationism. Had he led a principled opposition to Trumpism, Ryan might have emboldened others to find their spines and their voices. But who knows?

Opposing Trump might have cost Ryan the speakership, but it would also have created a legacy very different from the one he now has.

That’s what made watching Ryan’s farewell speech so dispiriting. He was the future that we never got to see.

I still wonder about that.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.