Ryan's Trump strategy: Say little

As Ryan becomes the latest punching bag for his party’s presidential nominee, the Wisconsin Republican has made the calculation that he faces little political upside in engaging in a back-and-forth with Trump.

So he has gone underground, avoiding questions at all costs about Trump and trying to focus instead on preserving congressional majorities. His strategy is an implicit recognition that the Wisconsin Republican finds himself in a lose-lose situation over his party’s nominee.

If he attacks Trump, he’s only bound to provoke even more conservative furor, something that could come back to haunt him if he finds himself searching for votes in the new Congress to preserve his speakership. Yet if he stands by Trump, he’ll be accused of backing off his decision to avoid defending the GOP nominee.

So the best strategy, according to several of his allies, boils down to this: Pretend Trump doesn’t exist.

“Ryan is focused on what he can control — raising funds and bringing attention and enthusiasm to our congressional races by talking about these candidates and the GOP agenda the House crafted,” said a source familiar with Ryan’s thinking.

In short, Ryan is trying to avoid staying out of the drama. But there’s one problem: Trump won’t let up.

Ryan, his friends say, is someone who doesn’t like to be in a political drama — something the speaker himself acknowledged in a private call with donors last week when discussing his feud with Trump, something he said he didn’t intend to start.

But Trump is keeping Ryan in the news. As Trump campaigned in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Monday evening, some Trump supporters weren’t shy about their disdain for the GOP speaker, yelling anti-Ryan statements.

“I don’t want to be knocking Paul Ryan … I think he could be more supportive to the Republican nominee,” Trump told ABC News about the chanting.

Asked if Ryan wants him to win in November, Trump suggests the speaker may have his eye on the White House himself, telling ABC, “maybe not, because maybe he wants to run in four years or maybe he doesn’t know how to win. Maybe just doesn’t know how to win‎.”

Trump, speaking to Fox News, said Monday evening that while he is trying to unite the party, “every once in a while, Paul will stand up and say he disagrees with this or that.”

Brad Courtney, chairman of the Wisconsin GOP said in a statement following Trump’s rally that the party is “incredibly proud and fully supportive of Speaker Paul Ryan and the work he does for the conservative movement here in Wisconsin and across this great nation.”

Since Ryan privately told colleagues last week in a conference call that he would no longer defend Trump, the House speaker has not said anything publicly about Trump. In his first public appearance last week since making those remarks, Ryan abruptly scrapped a planned 30-minute question-and-answer session with business leaders in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

The next day, anticipation was building that Ryan would answer questions about Trump with college Republicans at the University of Wisconsin. But Ryan, whose office helped pre-select the questions, wasn’t asked about his party’s nominee. And speaking to a friendly Wisconsin radio host later in the afternoon, he wasn’t asked about Trump, either.

This week, Ryan is stumping for House GOP candidates but he’s saying little publicly, including at a Wednesday campaign event with vulnerable Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo where officials said the lawmakers wouldn’t take questions from the media.

Since last week, Trump has continued his barrage against Ryan, including calling the House speaker “very weak and ineffective,” berating him to focus on the budget and saying the congressman has done “zilch” to push back against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Ryan’s response: Nothing.

The mum position showcases the difficult political spot Ryan finds himself in just three weeks before Election Day — especially as conservative voters unleash their fury at what they see as a political establishment slinging against Trump. For the last few months, Ryan touted Trump’s candidacy, but pushed back at times, including over Trump’s attacks on a Mexican-American judge.

But in recent days, Ryan has tread even more carefully when he felt the need to push back. A spokeswoman over the weekend rebuked Trump for his claims that the election is “rigged,” but the speaker himself has yet to speak out.

On Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid lashed out at Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not doing more to push back on Trump.

“When a major party’s nominee riles up his supporters and repeats the lie that the election is ‘rigged,’ the failure of Speaker Ryan and Sen. McConnell to affirm the fairness of our democratic process and condemn Donald Trump’s comments is complicity,” the Democratic leaders said.

Ryan is a precarious spot. Roughly a week after the presidential election, Ryan faces an internal vote by the House GOP conference on another term as speaker. And the blowback for his posture on Trump could factor in that secret ballot contest.

So far one House conservative, Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, threatened to pull his support for the speaker because of his reluctance to stand up for Trump in the final stretch before the election. No other House Republican has said they will challenge Ryan for the gavel, but the landscape could change dramatically if his majority shrinks, and conservatives on the right have even more power.

It’s a remarkable shift from four years ago. Then-Speaker John Boehner hosted a major rally in his district in Ohio — a key battleground state — for Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, and set off on a multi-day bus tour to campaign for the entire ticket.

Ryan, who was Romney’s running mate, disinvited Trump from the one public event they were scheduled to do together earlier this month in his district in Wisconsin after video tapes showed the billionaire businessman making sexually aggressive and vulgar remarks about women.

Last week, Ryan didn’t mention Trump’s name but instead gave an entire speech focused on attacking Clinton and what he described as the threat of a progressive agenda in Washington.

But his aides say the speaker wants to focus on his main mission: Preserving the House majority. Last week Ryan’s office announced he raised over $15 million in the third quarter for House Republican candidates, bringing his total haul during the 2016 cycle to $48 million.

While the final presidential debate takes center stage in Las Vegas this week, Ryan will be campaigning for House candidates in Florida after a swing through Texas.

One person he won’t be appearing with: Trump.

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