After the Trump-Ryan ‘Summit,’ Both Sides Can Pretend the Other Is Surrendering

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Donald Trump and Paul Ryan
We can work it out.Photo: Mark Lyons/2016 Getty Images

As political theater, the “summit” between Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan was first-rate. By that I don’t refer to the street circus of protesters and counter-protesters and a thousand cameras. The “joint statement” the two men issued after a meeting in the presence of RNC chairman Reince Priebus was a quick espresso shot of nothingness topped with pious hopes for “unity.” It left everyone free to interpret it as they wish.  

Like a truce between Roman generals and a barbarian chieftain in late antiquity, the “summit” will probably be regarded by each side as representing the first stage in the other’s surrender. For Trump, the very ritual of meetings with the RNC chairman, the House Speaker, the House leadership team, and (later today) the Senate leadership team connotes the conferral of respectability on a figure each and every one of these potentates has almost certainly disparaged in private as a buffoon, an overgrown juvenile delinquent, or a proto-fascist. And for said potentates, Trump’s day on Capitol Hill represents his coming domestication. This dance could go on for quite some time before any push comes to shove in a public disagreement. And by then Donald J. Trump and the Republican Party will be stuck with each other for the duration.

On Wednesday, Trump’s little-known top policy adviser, the former Iowa politician Sam Clovis, offered a good example of how easy it might be for Trump and Paul Ryan to blur their differences on even the most inflammatory issues. Pressed about whether “entitlement reform” was indeed off the table, as Trump himself seems to have said in debates and on the campaign trail, Clovis allowed as how a Trump administration might actually mosey over in that direction if fiscal circumstances so indicated. I’m sure Paul Ryan was pleased to hear that, and perhaps he was exactly the intended audience for that small but significant shift. Having spent much of the 2012 general election pretending to love Medicare more than life itself after issuing budget after budget proposing to gut it, Ryan knows how to blur his positions as well. 

As Greg Sargent shrewdly observed, a lot of the distance between Trump and Beltway Republicans can be bridged by Washington weasel-wording. They’re off to a good start today.