What Was Paul Ryan Thinking?

Inside the speaker's decision to endorse a man who, by his own admission, says racist things.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested Thursday that one reason he endorsed Trump was that he “won fair and square.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested Thursday that one reason he endorsed Trump was that he “won fair and square.”
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- If these are the times that try Republican souls, what are we to make of Speaker Paul Ryan?

The Wisconsin Republican, fresh off endorsing Donald Trump, called out the presumptive GOP nominee Tuesday for "sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment." Ryan said he wasn't "even going to pretend to defend" the businessman's statement that Judge Gonzalo Curiel should recuse himself from ruling on a Trump University case because of his Mexican heritage.

Yet right after calling those comments "unacceptable," Ryan proceeded to accept Trump. He said Hillary Clinton wasn't the answer and that Republicans were better off with Trump in the White House to sign the legislation they send him. The New York Daily News perfectly summed up the whiplash on a planned front page they drafted: "I'm With Racist."

Supporter-of-the-guy-who-says-racist-things is not a fantastic look for Ryan, who's presented himself as the serious, policy-driven adult in the GOP. But in conversations with members, aides and people close to Ryan, the speaker's confidants insist he's played the Trump endorsement as best he could -- future of our republic be damned.

It's important to understand that Trump was clearly not Ryan's first choice, according to these sources. That point was probably clear enough when, after months of saying he'd support the GOP nominee, Ryan went on CNN and said he wasn't ready to endorse Trump "at this point."

By holding off, Ryan managed to introduce some daylight between himself, Trump and, consequently, House Republicans. Ryan said he wanted to have real unity in the party, not just "fake unity," which would presumably occur if the speaker just pretended to support Trump.

Four weeks later, with Trump's tone perhaps even worse, Ryan endorsed him, prompting the question: What changed?

Ryan himself suggested recently that one big difference was the two had spoken. They met in person once, had a couple more phone calls and their staffs were in communication nearly every day, talking about Ryan and the House GOP's agenda.

The speaker also suggested Thursday that one reason he endorsed Trump was that he "won fair and square."

That's all well and good. But by Ryan's own admission, he's now pushing for a guy who says racist things to become the most powerful leader in the world. Clearly, there's more to this.

“I think Paul finally got to the point where he thought that his policies have a better chance of moving forward with Trump than with Clinton.”

- Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.)

According to those sources close to Ryan, a big part of the endorsement was the effect that the speaker not endorsing would have on Republicans down-the-ballot.

"If we tell Republicans its OK to stay home this fall, we could be looking at complete Democratic control of Washington, which has real consequences for all the things we believe in," a source close to Ryan told The Huffington Post.

Ryan's calculation was that it's better to get behind Trump and try to motivate Republicans to get to the polls than to create a rift, give the reality TV personality an excuse for his loss and simultaneously create a Democratic wave that could hand Clinton the House and Senate. That's what Ryan is trying to prevent. Better, in his thinking, to half-heartedly support Trump, continue calling him out for the outrageous, offensive, sometimes dangerous things he says, and, after the GOP nominee loses, have the party point to the businessman as the problem, not the establishment Republicans who didn't get onboard.

There's also perhaps an even more political calculation to that political calculation, though Ryan's confidants don't want to talk about it. If Ryan is going to run for president in 2020, he needs those Trump voters -- or, at least, he needs to not ostracize them. Ryan might win some points with moderates by withholding his endorsement, but he probably wins those votes back anyway. His refusal to immediately jump into bed with Trump was a signal to those voters where he really stands.

It's much more difficult to win back the Trump voters -- whatever constituency it is that they represent -- than the establishment folks who are naturally in Ryan's camp.

Another big component to Ryan's thinking is his current position in the Republican Party.

"Unless something crazy happens, it’s going to become clear before long that there are only really two options here," that same source close to Ryan said. "You’re either for Trump or you’re for Clinton and the Republican speaker of the House can’t be for Clinton."

Refusing to endorse Trump would have almost certainly made a speaker coup in January more likely. Perhaps, with an aggressive campaign by Trump -- just think of the tweets! -- Ryan may have been forced to resign his position before the election. All that would have accomplished, of course, is proving to voters that the GOP truly is Trump's party, overt racism, xenophobia, misogyny and all.

Of course, there's also the straightforward explanation that Ryan provided in his op-ed: He doesn't want Clinton to be president.

That seems to be the explanation members believe and offer themselves. "I think Paul finally got to the point where he thought that his policies have a better chance of moving forward with Trump than with Clinton," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), summing up a common thought.

Members don't fault Ryan for his endorsement. "Ryan did what he had to do," retiring Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said. "I mean, you have to stand for party unity. I mean, it's like the old adage, either we hang together or hang separately."

None of the 15 Republican members HuffPost talked to thought Ryan had actually achieved the "real unity" he said he desired with Trump. "In that situation, I think Paul did what he felt like he had to do," Salmon said.

But there's also an advantage to not finding real unity. The two Republican leaders are unlikely to be hugging any time soon, sure, but it wouldn't be odd to see them shaking hands. Ryan and Trump are at an arms-length distance. And even if Ryan's support for Trump is haunting him, even if he displayed to some voters the very fecklessness Trump accused Washington politicians of being guilty of, at least it's clear to the careful observer that this unity is less than genuine.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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