Republican leaders faced pressure to revoke their endorsement of Donald Trump following his attacks on a Gold Star family, but Paul Ryan said on Thursday that he does not intend to abandon his party’s nominee — though, he will make subtle jabs that seem to suggest he does not expect to see Trump sworn in on January 20.
Ryan’s response is fitting since Trump has been making passive-aggressive moves against him all week. On Monday, Trump said he may endorse the House speaker in his primary on Tuesday, but he’s “just not quite there yet.” Then he took to Twitter to thank Ryan’s challenger Paul Nehlen — who’s been described as a “mini-Trump” — for his “kind words.”
But Trump also let his running mate Mike Pence endorse Ryan (both men made it clear that the governor had to ask his permission), and tried to downplay the conflict, which outraged many Republican lawmakers. The New York Times reports that during a rally in Maine on Thursday, Trump called Ryan a “good guy” and urged his supporters to stop when they booed the speaker.
Meanwhile, Ryan stuck with his awkward strategy of endorsing the nominee while condemning his actions. In an interview with WTAQ radio in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Ryan reiterated the obvious point that politicians should not insult the families of service members killed in action, and even called Trump’s last week on the campaign trail a “pretty strange run.”
He explained that he’s still supporting Trump because “grassroots Republican primary voter selects our nominee,” and their will should be respected. But when asked if there could come a point when he would abandon the GOP presidential ticket, Ryan said, “None of these things are ever blank checks.”
Ryan went on to use the phrase “blank check” several times, including in a fundraising appeal that went out Thursday evening. “If we fail to protect our majority in Congress, we could be handing President Hillary Clinton a blank check,” it said.
Aside from the implication that Ryan has little faith that Trump will win the election, the Washington Post notes that “blank check” is a loaded term for Republicans:
It goes back 20 years, to an infamous chapter in internecine Republican politics. In the weeks before the 1996 presidential election, as it became clearer and clearer that GOP nominee Bob Dole would not defeat incumbent president Bill Clinton, Republican operatives began urging their struggling congressional candidates to begin making the argument: “Let’s not give Clinton a blank check.”
In late October of that year, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent $4 million on television ads in 50 congressional districts where races were close. The final shot was of a blank check hovering over the Capitol dome. It was signed: “American taxpayer.”
For Dole, the implication that even his own party had given up on him was a devastating blow.
If Republican leaders are planning to distance themselves from the nominee to save their majorities in Congress, Sean Hannity won’t let them get away with it. In a rant on Wednesday’s edition of his talk-radio show, he vowed to hold Ryan and those of his ilk responsible in the event of a Trump loss:
“If in 96 days Trump loses this election, I am pointing the finger directly at people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain,” Hannity said. “I have watched these Republicans be more harsh toward Donald Trump than they’ve ever been in standing up to Barack Obama and his radical agenda.”
Then on Thursday night, he let loose on The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, who wrote a column earlier this week calling on Republicans to abandon Trump:
Well, if Trump loses and Democrats take Congress, at least Republicans will still have each other.