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Paul Ryan hesitated to publicly criticize President Trump. He explains why?


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Paul Ryan hesitated to publicly criticize President Trump. He explains why?

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Paul Ryan has a thing about punctuality and routine. They bring a sense of order to the chaos that he otherwise must try to maneuver through. We sat down at 9 a.m. sharp in the ornate offices of the speaker of the House at the United States Capitol. It was a Wednesday in late July, and Ryan had a packed morning, starting with an appearance on Fox & Friends and ending with a meeting at the White House with President Trump if there is even a difference. Ah, jeez, he said a few seconds after we sat down. An aide had just handed Ryan a note: The president was on the phone. Let me take this real quick, he said. I waited a few minutes in the reception area until being invited back in. The president saw me on Fox & Friends,? Ryan told me, explaining the interruption. He said he thought I looked good. This is among the headiest commendations a Republican could hope to receive in Donald Trumps Washington. That happens to me a lot, Ryan added, referring to his post-TV attaboy. But its important to seize openings, and he used the opportunity to steer the conversation to the subject of trade policy. The speaker had met the day before at the Capitol with the top trade officials from the European Union, who later that day would be meeting with Trump. He and the president compared notes. Ryan said he encouraged him to emphasize their shared goal of reducing and eliminating trade barriers. Trump seemed to get the message, or Ryan hoped he had. After a few minutes, the conversation concluded with Trump reiterating to Ryan that he looked good on Fox & Friends. ADVERTISEMENT Ryan announced in April that he would not be seeking re-election, ending a 20-year run in Congress that, for most of it, seemed to be on a straight-up trajectory. Ryans official reason for leaving was that his family clock was ticking and he no longer wanted to be a weekend dad. But its easy to suspect otherwise, and not just because that is a clichd excuse: Ambitious 48-year-old politicians at the peak of their powers dont suddenly just decide to quit because theyve discovered that their teenage children are growing up fast back in Wisconsin. Ryan should, by rights, be riding out of town at the pinnacle of his starlit Washington career. Yet he remains a distinctly awkward match to a moment and president that seem certain to define much of his legacy. As has been strenuously noted, Trump and Ryan are stylistic and philosophical opposites: Trump the blunt-force agitator vs. Ryan the think-tank conservative. Trump lashes out while Ryan treads carefully. Ryan still fashions himself a policy guy and a man of ideas: In high school, he read the conservative philosopher Ayn Rand and was captivated by her signature work, Atlas Shrugged. He bills himself as a guardian of the free-trading, debt-shrinking notions that Republican-led governments used to stand for before Trump crashed the tent. The speaker says he tries to encourage good behavior in the president. He put out a tweet last night that was really good, Ryan told me after he and the president hung up. (It was apparently an innocuous tweet about trade.) The speakers words carried the vaguely patronizing tone of a parent affirming a potty-training milestone. You have 4 free articles remaining. Subscribe to The Times Trump used to call Ryan Boy Scout. I thought it was a compliment, said Ryan, a former altar boy and habitual people-pleaser. But after the Republican-controlled Congress passed a few bills Trump announced to Ryan that he would stop using the nickname. So I guess he meant it as an insult all along, the speaker said. I didnt realize. Ryan shrugged. Questions about Donald Trump have been an inescapable companion to Ryans final months in office. They have trailed Ryan since the billionaire showman first incinerated the Republican Party as he knew it and reduced the boyish speaker to his most puzzled-over foil. It was shocking to me, Ryan told me of Trumps rise. I didnt see it coming. It threw me off. What would the supposedly principled conservative speaker tolerate? What would he fight for? Would he fight at all? Ryan is clearly sick of the What about Trump? questions and of having the dilemma imposed upon him. He has been held up as a figure of disdain across the spectrum: Trump-lovers have remained suspicious of him as a tool of the establishment and are quick to raise Ryans sacrileges against their hero during the campaign; Democrats, never Trump conservatives and quietly some elected Republicans wish Ryan would provide a stronger counterbalance to a battering-ram president. Ryan, the rap goes, has deserted his post as a potential conscience of the party and voice for decency, and he has allowed Trumps most fervent acolytes in the House Devin Nunes, for instance to run wild in his defense. The speaker knows better and yet goes along anyway. Ryan traded his political soul, the conservative columnist George F. Will has written, for ... a tax cut. EDITORS PICKS This Is the Way Paul Ryans Speakership Ends Opinion The Gift of Menopause Love Filled Their Trip. On Day 369, ISIS Struck. ADVERTISEMENT Ryans defiance to Trump, such as it is, can carry an almost pro forma quality. He will avoid or claim ignorance if possible (I didnt see the tweet), chastise the president if he must (rarely by name), wait for the latest outrage to pass, rinse and repeat. Frankly, I havent paid that close attention to it, said Ryan at a June news conference in which he was asked about the job status of Scott Pruitt, the scandal-drenched E.P.A. administrator who was finally run out of office in July and whose mounting offenses over several months would have been impossible for even the most casual news consumer to miss. I can understand all of the rationalities, says Charlie Sykes, a longtime conservative radio host in Wisconsin who spent years trying to persuade Ryan to run for president before turning sharply against him over Trump. In a Faustian bargain, you get a lot of things. You get the wealth, you get the beautiful women and you get all this good stuff. In Ryans case, this would include tax and regulatory overhauls. It just turns out the price is higher than you thought. Ryan hears such assessments all the time. Im very comfortable with the decisions Ive made, he told me. I would make them again, do it again the same way. He is quick to present his counterfactual. What if he were to pick a fight with Trump every time he said something that offended? I think some people would like me to start a civil war in our party and achieve nothing. Why should Ryan, despite his own misgivings, make himself the vehicle for anti-Trump wish-fulfillment? The counter-counterfactual is this: Are Republican leaders so unwilling to condemn Trump because their voters support him so vigorously, or do these voters support Trump so vigorously because so few Republican leaders have dared condemn his actions? Chicken, meet egg. I would say the unwillingness of Ryan and others to offer an alternative vision to Trump would be the reason that Trumps approval number is so high, Sykes told me. When your best and brightest basically run up the white flag, its going to have an effect. The last few months have been a particularly checkered stretch of Paul Ryans finale. He agreed to a series of exit interviews during a tumultuous summer, over which Trump would blowtorch his way through a tour of Europe, call the European Union a top foe of the United States, feud with NATO, embrace Vladimir Putin and absolve the Russians for election meddling and then came home to insinuate himself into Republican primary campaigns, escalate his attacks on Robert Mueller and threaten to shut down the government if he didnt get his border wall. After our meeting in his office, Ryan addressed a packed house of congressional interns in the Capitol Visitor Center. A former intern himself, Ryan has a well-known Washington origin story: He worked as a waiter at Tortilla Coast, the renowned Capitol Hill bar and restaurant, before being elected to Congress at 28. In his talk to the interns, Ryan encouraged students to resist the temptation of Twitter snark. He encouraged them not to degrade the tone of our debate and to appeal to our common humanity. ADVERTISEMENT There was no mention of the elephant in chief in the room, at least until the questions started, as they inevitably do. Far from any unified governing philosophy, the animating objective for much of todays Republican Party has been reduced to whatever Trump does or wants. The main goal of many elected Republicans is to curry the approval of the president, avoid provoking him (or, worse, a tweet) and thus not inflame the base. Being deemed an infidel inside the Church of the Base can be lethal for even the most ensconced incumbent (Mark Sanford, a South Carolina representative and a persistent Trump critic, was primaried out of his misery in June). ImageThe Daily Poster Listen to The Daily: Paul Ryans Exit As speaker of the House, the Republican lawmaker should be at the peak of his powers. Instead, hes walking away. Play Audio Ryan made a determination after Trumps election that to defy the president too forcefully would invite a counterreaction. He tends to speak of the commander in chief as if he were sharing a coping strategy on dealing with a Ritalin-deprived child. It boomerangs, Ryan says of being too critical of Trump. He goes in the other direction, so thats not effective. He added, The pissing match doesnt work. Ryan prefers to tell Trump how he feels in private. He joins a large group of Trumps putative allies, many of whom have worked in the administration, who insist that they have shaped Trumps thinking and behavior in private: the Trust me, Ive stopped this from being much worse approach. I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, Ryan tells me. I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal. I locked in on the word tragedy. It sets the mind reeling to whatever thwarted tragedies Ryan might be talking about. I asked for an example. No, I dont want to do that, Ryan replied. Thats more than I usually say. After beginning his day with his regular yoga-and-spin class, Ryan invited me to ride along en route to a speech at a downtown hotel, hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. His remarks were followed by a question-and-answer session with David Rubenstein, the billionaire financier and philanthropist who also hosts a talk show on Bloomberg. Rubenstein jumped from questions about things like Ryans upcoming transition back into civilian life (Do you have to get a new license?) and why Ryan insists that sleeping on a cot in his congressional office saves time. Rubenstein also sprang a question about whether Ryan thought it would be proper for Trump to pardon anyone caught up in the Mueller investigation. ADVERTISEMENT Im not going to touch that one, he said. Rubenstein followed up with a related question about whether Trump should be allowed to pardon himself. Ryan laughed. Im good, thanks, he said, as if he were resisting a plate of hors doeuvres not touching that either. Rubenstein eventually touched down elsewhere, but the pardon question lingered, at least with me. It came off as a quintessential example of Ryan glibly blowing off what could be a monumental abuse of presidential power and a potentially gigantic crisis. I raised this in the car heading back to the Capitol. His eyes bulged for an instant, as if some defense enzyme had been released. I dont spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff, Ryan said of the pardon issue. Shouldnt you? I said. Its speculative, to a degree, I allowed. But if youre not going to touch that, who is? I dont think hes going to do things like that, Ryan said of Trump. He already has, I said, referring to Trumps pardoning of lawbreaking allies (Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Dinesh DSouza). No, Im talking about firing and things like that, Ryan said. Trump has already done that too (James Comey) and has reportedly wanted to fire Mueller on at least two occasions. My point is, Ryan said, and Ive said it all along, Mueller should be able to do his job. Ryan seemed to become agitated by this line of questioning. Im not going to spend my time being a pundit, theorizing and speculating, he said. Im going to spend my time making a difference in peoples lives, getting stuff done. Now I was slightly annoyed by Ryans reduction of my question to pundit theorizing, as if Muellers investigation held zero significance to peoples lives. Im not going to spend my time getting into these circular debates, Ryan added. Im trying to get an agenda passed. I pointed out that if Trump fires Mueller, it might be too late for Ryan to do anything even if he wanted to, and the country could already be well into a constitutional crisis. ADVERTISEMENT I dont think Ryan began, then stopped. He knows my opinion on these things. Ryan was hardly coy about his ambivalence to Trump during the 2016 campaign. He withheld his endorsement until Trump became the presumptive nominee in June, denounced his attacks on a judge of Mexican heritage as the textbook definition of a racist comment and distanced himself almost entirely after the Access Hollywood tape was revealed in October. It was only after Trump stunned Hillary Clinton in November that Ryan forged a dtente with Trump born of a powerful convenience: The new president knew (or cared) little about policy, and Ryan was happy to fill the void in exchange for Trumps signature. (The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist once identified the most important characteristic of any Republican president as enough working digits to handle a pen.) Trumps signature across the Republican tax-reform bill gave both men their chief legislative accomplishments. In Ryans case, the bill supersized the deficit and made a mockery of the debt crisis that Ryan used to talk endlessly about during the Barack Obama years. The bill has also failed to attract the widespread approval in polls that tax cuts typically do, and has become only less popular over time. Even so, Ryan himself has managed to remain relatively well regarded as legislative leaders go (a little like being the best ice-fisherman in Florida, but still). In a June Gallup survey, Ryans approval rating, 40 percent, came in decisively better than those of Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader (29 percent); Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader (24 percent); and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader (29 percent). Im the least-unpopular leader in Congress, Ryan boasted playfully. Ryan has always been unrestrained, even ostentatious, in advertising that he never wanted to be speaker. Reluctance, for a politician, is always a deft humblebrag. Being courted lends cachet, and its even better to be begged, which is pretty much what congressional Republicans resorted to when it became clear that Ryan was the only one with the votes or (barely) the stomach to take the job after John Boehner stepped down in 2015. I do think Paul wishes he was still chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, says Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican who also is not seeking re-election. Rooney guesses that Ryan would not be retiring if he were still Ways and Means chairman. He made a deal with the devil to become speaker, Rooney told me. Republican House members I spoke with give Ryan decent marks for his ability to manage a fractious caucus with a record number of retirements and a Trump-emboldened group of insurgent hard-liners, the House Freedom Caucus, eager to be seen, preferably on Fox News, as noble defenders of an unfairly besieged president. Its not so much a Congress as much as it has become a parliament of pundits, says Jonah Goldberg, the conservative author. Everyone just wants to secure their position on Morning Joe or Fox & Friends.? ADVERTISEMENT Rooney posits the example of his home-state colleague, Representative Ron DeSantis, who is running to be governor of Florida. DeSantis had been trailing the former congressman Adam Putnam, now the states agriculture commissioner, in the Republican primary race. DeSantis undertook a strategy of getting on as many Fox News shows as he could and defending Trump as adamantly as possible. MAGA is the dogma, Rooney says. DeSantiss devotion to scripture won the attention and endorsement of the almighty himself; DeSantis now leads Putnam by double digits. He recently unveiled an ad in which he is seen reading a bedtime story to his infant son, who at one point is dressed in a red Make America Great Again onesie. Then Mr. Trump said, Youre fired,? the loving dad reads. Ryan told me that he has always been motivated by promoting ideas and winning debates. By contrast, todays party, under Trump, is about pledging allegiance. I dont know that Paul knows how to rally around Trumpism, Rooney says. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, told me that Trump and Ryan are just wired differently, like most people are. McCarthy, a strategic-minded operator with pillowy hair, has forged a genuine bond with Trump arguably more so than any other lawmaker. Still, like most elected Republicans, McCarthy treads carefully, wary of poking the orange bear. Its hard to overemphasize the degree to which Trump lives in the heads of elected Republicans. You get a sense of everyone on edge, waiting for the next tweet to drop as if a tornado siren should accompany its arrival. When I visited McCarthy at the Capitol, the majority leader kept toggling between on and off the record. I asked McCarthy if he thought Ryan wished he could speak out more forcefully on some things the president does that might offend him. On the record or off the record? McCarthy asked me. On, I would prefer. McCarthy paused and proceeded with care. I think history will say that Paul spoke his own mind, he said. Sitting in his office in late July, I pressed Ryan again on why he was retiring now, before 50, from a job that places him second in line to the presidency and as the head of a congressional majority. He had spoken before about how he was 16 years old when his own father died at 55. And his dad died when he was 57, all of heart attacks, Ryan said. So Ive always had a sense that life is real quick you better grab it. One lesser-known part of Ryans story is that his father was an alcoholic. The speaker notes this briefly in a book but rarely speaks of it. He started drinking when I was 12, Ryan told me. Those four years were tough years. When I asked how, Ryan pressed his lips and stared at his lap. He was an alcoholic, he said. He was just an alcoholic. He mentioned that he became very close with his mother during those years and always sought out mentors. I was wary of slapping some drive-by psychoanalysis on Ryan, but there is a classic notion in psychology that the children of alcoholics learn to accommodate difficult personalities. They tend, in many cases, to be pleasers, avoidant of strife and mindful of not inciting. Whatever combination of factors and mentors formed Paul Ryan, this skill set would seem to suit his current predicament. I deal with conflict constantly, he told me. I have, strangely, developed a great new respect for temperament. ADVERTISEMENT When people talk about temperament in politics, its often in connection with presidents. The swap from Obama to Trump offered pretty much the starkest contrast in presidential temperaments imaginable. I asked Ryan if it was an adjustment for him to serve with two presidents of such radically distinct disposition. Yeah, yes, he said. Ryan said he personally liked Obama and, yes, appreciated his temperament; its similar to Ryans in certain respects serious, disciplined and not terribly emotional. I asked if he preferred one style of presidential temperament over another. I just did not like Obamas policies, he said, answering a different question. Ryan and Obama have not spoken since the speaker saw the departing president out the back of the Capitol and onto a helicopter. It was pleasant, Ryan recalled. I caught up again with Ryan on a soupy Thursday morning in the Capitol. Youre going to ask me about Donald Trump 16 times, right? he asked me as we buckled ourselves into the back of his armored Suburban. He has this practiced-exasperation shtick down pretty well at this point. He was headed to do an onstage interview with Jonah Goldberg on the subject of political leadership in an age of tribalism and identity politics, a topic that Ryan says he has given a great deal of thought to. To Ryans mind, tribalism and identity politics are twin scourges that contributed to the environment that exists today. Donald Trump didnt give us all this, Ryan told me. Donald Trump is showing us what it looks like. The event was hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank you could easily imagine Ryan sliding into after he leaves Congress if not sooner. To wit: Paul Ryan Would Be Perfect Fit to Lead A.E.I., Republicans Say, read a headline that appeared a few days later in the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill. Well, I know how much you love responding to the presidents tweets in real time, I said. I havent seen todays what did he do now? Ryan asked me. This was three days after the presidents fateful news conference in Helsinki, in which Trump steamrollered the conclusion of United States intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 election while accepting that Vladimir Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial. Ryan, who issued a relatively pointed statement after Helsinki (The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally) grabbed a printout of the hour-old tweet I had helpfully brought along and read it silently to himself, except for a few phrases that he spat out under his breath (summit, great success, fake news media). Uh, yeah, O.K., whatever, Ryan said, shaking his head and smirking. Didnt he do one like that two days ago? This tweet was just another episode of the same sitcom, in other words. ADVERTISEMENT I mentioned something else Trump had tweeted that morning: that he planned to invite Putin to Washington for our second meeting. Hes just trolling you guys, Ryan said, unveiling a new line to explain away Trump. This was a twist on Ryans go-to evasion of dismissing the medium of tweets, rather than condemning their words or intent. It is also an implicit declaration from the speaker of the House that the presidents words are not to be taken seriously because his goal is to merely troll. Therefore, any reaction by you guys reflects a lack of judgment and proportion: He is essentially chiding people for allowing themselves to be distracted. In his Suburban, I presented Ryan with a possible real-world consequence of something he was trivializing: Even if Trump were just trolling you guys, what about the people who take the presidents words seriously and who look to him for guidance? I mentioned to Ryan that according to an online poll released that morning by Axios and SurveyMonkey, 79 percent of Republicans approved of Trumps news conference in Helsinki. Oh, really, Ryan said, looking startled for a second. It has to be deflating, on some level, to spend years fashioning yourself as one of the Republican Partys thought leaders, only to see your position routed by a troll with a killer Twitter following. I thought it was a really bad press conference, Ryan said. He said again that Trump just loves to troll you guys. I asked him if he derived any enjoyment from watching you guys being so expertly trolled. Not really, Ryan said. I dont think like that, and I dont act like that, he said. Trump just wants to see your heads explode, and he just wants you to spend the next 12 hours talking about this. This struck me as Ryans best attempt to explain Trumpism, if not one of those Where we are as a country moments that seem to occur every day now, or every minute on Twitter. But its still useful to lay down a marker sometimes. We have, in this case, a Republican speaker of the House explaining away a presidents intentions as nothing more than an effort to get a rise out of people. I asked Ryan who the you guys being trolled were. The country, he said, chuckling. The people who dont like him, he clarified. The non-Trumpers. I asked Ryan if he was one of the you guys. Sometimes, he said, yeah.


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Added On: August 9, 2018, 8:47 pm EDT


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