POLITICS

Paul Ryan Won't Defend Trump. But He Also Won't Unendorse Him.

A delicate dance for House Republicans.

WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is done defending Donald Trump, but he won’t unendorse him ― at least, not yet.

Ryan told Republican members of Congress on a conference call Monday that they “all need to do what’s best for you in your district,” according to someone on the call. Ryan said he wouldn’t campaign with Trump for the rest of the election, but added that he wouldn’t withdraw his endorsement of the GOP nominee.

“He made clear to members that his decisions are being driven by what is best for his members, not himself,” the source on the call said. “He is willing to endure political pressure to help protect our majority.”

Ryan seems to be suggesting that he would unendorse Trump if he were on his own. But the speaker is not on his own, and he’s signaling that he believes there would be a negative down-ballot effect for Republicans if he were to pull his support.

The conference call was held after a leaked video revealed that Trump had, in 2005, bragged about groping and kissing women without their consent. Amid a steady stream of Republicans unendorsing Trump, many party members are questioning whether they, too, should withdraw their support of the nominee and risk angering Trump’s base and depressing GOP turnout even more. Not unendorsing means forever associating yourself with Trump and telling voters that Trump’s behavior is still acceptable. It’s the bind Republicans have been in all along, but Trump’s recently disclosed behavior exacerbates it.

On top of that, the Trump tarnish becomes more difficult to avoid as more members unendorse Trump. The question of why you, as a Congressman, find Trump to be acceptable becomes more pointed the more Republicans withdraw their support.

That question is particularly difficult for Ryan. The speaker has struggled with his Trump endorsement from the very beginning, first by withholding it, then by offering it while continuing to criticize Trump. More to the point, Trump has made it difficult for Republicans like Ryan to support him, as he has called immigrants rapists, proposed banning Muslim immigrants and ― among so many other outrages ― said a judge couldn’t be fair because he was of Mexican heritage.

That last offense, involving federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, became a flashpoint between Trump and Ryan when the speaker described the GOP nominee’s positions as “sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Still, Ryan has stood by Trump, and neither the GOP nominee’s lewd comments released Friday nor the call on Monday has changed that. 

Discussion was spirited during the call, according to sources, as some pro-Trump members spoke up in support of the nominee. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said he would gladly sacrifice his congressional seat if it meant preventing a Hillary Clinton presidency, and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) dismissed Trump’s comments as “locker room talk” that paled in comparison to the importance of a Republican nominating a Supreme Court justice.

Republicans also used the call to update members on the state of House races.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) talked about how the environment for Republicans has been changing rapidly. Walden previously touted the ability of House Republicans to avoid down-ballot troubles, but said the situation has gotten worse for Republicans since the first debate and that things would change after Friday’s comments.

Walden advised members to do polling in their district to understand what voters are thinking, and he pressed Republicans to give any extra money they have to the NRCC.

Ryan’s advice that Republicans should do what they need to is also a recognition of the state of House races. Without evidence yet of the polling impact, Republicans seem to think they’re in a rapidly deteriorating position with voters, and that dumping Trump could be the only course ahead for some members ― either because they’re concerned about re-election or their sense of responsibility.

This article has been updated throughout.

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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