CHESTER SPRINGS, Pa. (AP) — For Paul Ryan, October is now all about protecting the Republican majority of the House — and his own job as speaker.
The Wisconsin Republican can’t ignore Donald Trump, his party’s bull-in-a-china-shop presidential candidate. Nor can he offend Trump’s millions of voters, whom many House GOP candidates need to survive next month’s elections. Yet amid the remarkable spectacle of the party’s White House nominee and its highest elected official practically at war, Ryan said Monday he’s not going to lift a finger for Trump or even be seen with him.
Ryan said he will focus “his entire energy making sure that Hillary Clinton does not get a blank check” with a Democratic Congress if she’s elected president. He made the comment during a conference call with House GOP lawmakers, according to someone on the call.
Ryan made two campaign stops in eastern Pennsylvania last week in which he never spoke the words “Donald Trump,” dramatizing how he’s trying to guide House candidates through rocky political waters Trump has roiled with regularity.
“We see ourselves in the House as offering ideas and solutions, kind of adding a rudder and a keel to our party,” Ryan said last Thursday as he appeared with the local GOP congressman at J-Tech USA, all but suggesting that such substance and stability was not emanating from the top of the ticket. The company services trucks for highway crews.
Ryan was scheduled to spend this week tending to political events in his home state. He then resumes a feverish coast-to-coast effort to defend GOP control of the House, a tour that was scheduled to cover at least 17 states and 42 cities and might grow.
Republicans have been favored to retain House control in November’s voting, with Democrats needing to gain 30 seats to take charge of the 435-member chamber. But Democratic hopes have grown — and GOP nerves have been frazzled — after two weeks of politically seismic setbacks for Trump, capped by Friday’s release of a video showing him making vulgar boasts about forcing himself on women.
In Monday’s rare conference call, jumpy House Republicans heard Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, who heads their campaign organization, say the political situation was deteriorating for the GOP, especially among women, according to two people on the call. Walden urged them to poll frequently and warned that the path to victory for candidates in tight races resembled landing a plane in the fog with a hurricane blowing.
On that same call, Ryan said he would not defend Trump or campaign with him and would focus on protecting the House GOP majority, two listeners said. One said Ryan told Republicans to do what “you think is right personally, and what you need to do politically.”
Trump fired back on Twitter.
“Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee,” he wrote.
The two men have clashed for months, with Ryan repeatedly criticizing Trump’s comments about Muslims and others and each belatedly endorsing the other’s election bid. After the Trump tape was released, Ryan said he was “sickened” and withdrew his invitation for Trump to attend a Wisconsin political event, which would have been their first joint appearance of the campaign.
Ryan’s comments Monday upset some of his own colleagues — a potential danger sign for Ryan.
Some conservatives criticized Ryan during the call, listeners said. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California denounced Ryan’s approach as “cowardly” and demanded that party leaders stop their “Trump can’t win defeatism,” said three Republicans familiar with the call.
Some lawmakers said party leaders should help Trump because down-ballot candidates like them would fare better if Trump lost narrowly to Democrat Hillary Clinton than if he was beaten resoundingly.
“I never doubted he should be speaker,” Rohrabacher said of Ryan in an interview Monday. “However, if he can’t prevent himself from panicking and helping the enemy in a situation like this, well, then we’ll find out.”
Ryan is expected to seek re-election as speaker if Republicans retain the majority and may run for president in 2020, and in each case needs conservative support.
Many Republicans have begun viewing Trump as a problem for their own careers, especially since last Friday’s release of the tape. Dozens of House and Senate Republicans have rescinded past endorsements of Trump or called for him to end his candidacy.
Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa. — whose district Ryan visited last week — also never mentioned Trump’s name during their joint appearance. The closest either lawmaker came was when Costello said, “We’re running to make this country an even greater place to live and work and raise a family” — paraphrasing Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Ryan aides say he has raised more than $40 million since becoming speaker last fall, a huge number. He’s given about three-fourths of that to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which Walden heads, with the rest going to other GOP candidates and committees and his own campaign.
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AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.