A day after Trump surprised his own party by taking the first offer from congressional Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and continue government spending for three months, many House conservatives have decided that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is ultimately to blame for Trump’s impulsive deal.
“Lack of preparation leads to poor choices, and the fact that we weren’t here ― and you heard me say this the other night ― we weren’t here for six weeks, the longest non-election-year break we’ve had in a decade,” former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Thursday, “that’s a problem.”
Asked if Trump had effectively stepped in front of a bullet for Ryan by taking the blame for a bad deal that the speaker would have largely taken the responsibility for if the president had just stayed out of negotiations, Jordan said he wasn’t here to blame anybody. “What I’m saying is we should have done what we had said back in July,” Jordan answered. “We should have stayed here and put together a debt ceiling plan.”
Obviously, Ryan has a lot of blame for a congressional recess, though the majority leader also has a say in the congressional schedule. But Jordan added that when lawmakers fail to prepare for deadlines, they don’t have the best options come decision time.
That’s not an unfair argument, but it ignores an obvious reality: This deal that Trump struck with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was a deal that Trump struck, not Ryan.
But time and again Thursday, conservatives ignored Trump’s role in the agreement and found a way to blame the speaker.
“I think he saw the same-old, same-old kind of crap coming from leadership, and that wasn’t good enough,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said of Trump, theorizing that the president was effectively preserving the debt limit issue until December.
As much as Gosar defended the president, he couldn’t find an adequate reason to vote for the bill ― he said he plans to oppose the package when it comes before the House ― but Gosar noted he could see how this deal works to Trump’s favor if the president plays his hand right.
That part seems unlikely. Lawmakers have repeatedly noted in the last two days that Trump just set a precedent that will be tough for him to break: He supported raising the debt ceiling without concessions, and he has agreed to fund the government without demanding money for his border wall.
Even Gosar acknowledged that Trump has made his negotiating position more difficult. “He may have lost that credibility,” Gosar said. “But time will tell.”
Still, conservatives generally refused to blame Trump for a deal that most of them believe to be bad for Republicans. Many said they couldn’t answer questions until actually seeing the text of the deal. Many outright refused to answer questions.
“I’m not going to talk about whether Donald Trump or Paul Ryan did a good or bad job,” said Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama.
And many others made tenuous connections between the deal and Paul Ryan.
“I just see that the leadership team signed off on it and the rest of us find out about it,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). King noted that Ryan and other GOP leaders didn’t ever offer a conservative alternative to a clean increase in the debt ceiling ― again, an argument that isn’t wrong but somehow ignores the fact that Trump jumped at the chance for a clean debt limit.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) conveyed that he was disappointed in the deal. But even after he was presented with the argument that Ryan had called the Democratic offer “ridiculous” Wednesday morning shortly before Trump took the offer, Gohmert said Ryan may actually have been a proponent of the deal. “We don’t know if he was or not,” the congressman said.
Moderates generally welcomed Trump’s deal, noting that the president had effectively cut out the Freedom Caucus from negotiations. “To me, the main positive of this deal is we’re not gonna have one group of 30 or 40 have veto power,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said. “We can’t allow a group of 30 or 40 to be setting policy for the House of Representatives.”
But as much as moderates were celebrating the compromised position of conservatives, conservatives were muted in their criticism ― at least of Trump, who many believe is the key to overthrowing Ryan.
Conservatives have quietly been laying the groundwork for a coup against Ryan, pointing out with increasing frequency that the speaker had no plan to extract GOP concessions on the debt ceiling or a continuing resolution. But it’s difficult to argue that this legislation is really Ryan’s fault when Trump got out in front of it.
Republicans have spun Trump’s decision as one recognizing that Democrats were going to win this negotiation, so better to just “clear the decks” and perhaps allow Congress to focus on tax reform. But even that explanation is fraught. The short-term nature of the deal ensures that lawmakers will be focused on negotiating a broader deal in December, not just cutting taxes.
Ryan’s own defense of the agreement is that Trump saw a nation recovering from one hurricane and preparing for another, and he wanted a bipartisan moment rather than a protracted disagreement. That argument may work for some, but Trump has put Republicans in a bind for future negotiations, and he did so with little to no consultation from congressional leaders or his legislative affairs staff, according to one senior GOP aide familiar with discussions.
And if Trump himself wanted to preserve his conservative credentials and damage Paul Ryan, he just went ahead and did the exact opposite. The question is whether that will matter to the far-right lawmakers who already seem to be plotting Ryan’s fall.
When Gosar was asked Thursday if he still supports Ryan as speaker, he repeatedly answered that he hadn’t said “one way or another.”
Asked if he would welcome Ryan campaigning for him, Gosar answered that he didn’t have a challenger. Asked whether he would let Ryan even fundraise for him, Gosar said he didn’t know about that, noting that Ryan was “very unpopular” in his district.