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It was late Monday night, and the first presidential debate had just come to a close. Donald Trump was on TV congratulating himself for not bringing up Bill Clinton’s infidelities. Trump’s advisers were in the spin room bickering with reporters about his sundry gaffes, lies, and onstage outbursts. The pundits were on Twitter declaring Trump the night’s undisputed loser. And Paul Ryan was in Washington, trying to think of something nice to say.
“The energy that Donald Trump offered tonight is why the enthusiasm is on our side,” Ryan offered in a statement that went out shortly before midnight. “The American people are ready for solutions, and Donald Trump offers a chance to move in a new direction.”
This is Paul Ryan’s life now. This is who he is.
In the four months since he formally endorsed his party’s nominee for president, Ryan — the esteemed Speaker of the House, the sterling guardian of conservatism, the intellectual leader of the Republican Party — has been reduced to a miserable Trump flunky sheepishly counting down the hours until the election is over. Each day he spends tethered to the Donald seems to bring some fresh humiliation; each role he inhabits in the entourage proves more undignified than the last. Adviser, apologist, hype man, scold — none brings redemption, or even reprieve. And so he trudges on toward November, a stench of sadness clinging to him as he goes.
Friends and allies, disappointed though many of them are, have tried to show Ryan support in this difficult time. They labor to give him the benefit of the doubt, to rationalize his endorsement — and when they’re defending his honor on the record, they might even find themselves slipping into Messianic metaphors.
“I feel so sorry for Paul,” said Bob Woodson, the veteran civil rights activist who mentors Ryan on issues of poverty and race. “He wishes someone else could take the cup from him. … I’d say ‘weary martyr’ is a good way to describe him.”
“I think he endorsed Trump because he tries to see the best in people, and he hoped that his endorsement would be a down payment on a new and improved Trump,” said Katie Packer, a friend of Ryan’s who served as Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.
“Unfortunately,” she added, Ryan’s policy agenda “has been hijacked by Donald Trump,” and “I think there will be some who find it hard to forgive his support” of the nominee.
Sources close to the Speaker said he endorsed Trump in June in hopes of gaining access to the candidate’s inner-circle and steering him away from his more destructive behavior. Ryan also believed he could convince Trump to infuse his platform with more orthodox conservative policy.
Of course, neither initiative has been particularly successful — and along the way, Ryan has put himself in the deeply degrading position of having to respond to every outrage Trump committed on the campaign trail.
This mortifying little ritual kicked off in June, when Trump began claiming that a judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University was biased because of his Mexican heritage. Journalists, naturally, wanted to know: Did Ryan agree?
“Claiming a person can’t do the job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” he told a gaggle of reporters. “I think that should be absolutely disavowed. I think that’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.”
The next month Trump was at it again, publicly feuding with the parents of a slain Muslim soldier after they’d criticized him from the stage of the Democratic National Convention. Amid a hail of bipartisan criticism, spiraling poll numbers, and desperate pleas from advisers to just let the issue drop, Trump continued to lash out at the Gold Star parents for days.
Ryan’s office, flooded with questions about the controversy, put out a statement celebrating America’s men and women in uniform, and rejecting Trump’s proposed Muslim ban just for good measure. “Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice. Captain Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period.”
Just for the record, reporters asked, was Ryan still supporting Trump?
And just for the record, the answer came back: Yes, he was.
People close to Ryan said there is an art to crafting the perfect rhetorical response to one of Trump’s eruptions: They must be strongly worded enough for the Speaker’s condemnation to be taken seriously — but not so strongly worded that he’s left with no choice but to withdraw his endorsement. Capitol Hill staffers have expressed pity for Ryan’s well-regarded press secretary, AshLee Strong, who is often tasked with drafting and disseminating these statements.
“I can’t imagine having to do that,” said one GOP communications adviser on the Hill. “It would just be soul-sucking.”
As the race has dragged on, Ryan seems to have embarked on a quixotic mission to avoid talking about Trump altogether, his windmill-tilting evasions sometimes taking on a morbidly funny quality.
At a press conference on the night of his August congressional primary, Ryan was bombarded with questions about Trump’s recent suggestion that “the Second Amendment people” could stop Hillary Clinton. The Speaker replied that he had been too busy campaigning that day to see the clip (which was then dominating national media coverage) but that he assumed it was merely a “joke gone bad.” That was followed by another question about Donald Trump, and then another, and finally Ryan declared the press conference over by bolting from the podium.
Ryan no doubt relished his time away from the press during the summer recess, but it’s unlikely he found a true respite from the Trump talk at home. Trygve Olson, a Republican strategist who grew up in Ryan’s native Wisconsin, said he was surprised during a recent trip home to see how worked up his non-political friends had gotten about the election — and how many of them were repulsed by Trump.
“Knowing [Ryan] a little bit and knowing where he comes from, having grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, too, I can’t imagine that’s not weighing on him,” said Olson.
Whatever the reason, Ryan has seemed to grow more visibly dyspeptic about his lot in life since returning to Washington. At a press conference last month, he became uncharacteristically testy with reporters when they asked him about Trump’s proclamation that Vladimir Putin was a stronger leader than President Obama.
“Do you think I’m going to stand up here and be an election pundit?” Ryan responded sharply. “I’ve got other things to do in this job. Yeah, he’s the nominee of our party, because he won our nomination fair and square. I’m not going to sit up here and do the tit for tat on what Donald said last night, or the night before, and Hillary versus Donald. That is not my job, and I’m not going to be the election year pundit commenting on all these little things. I’ll leave it at that.”
But of course, it will almost certainly not be left at that, no matter how badly Ryan wishes it so. There are yet more questions to answer, more outbursts to disavow, more humiliations to endure. And if it seems like Ryan gets badgered about Trump’s every utterance with more frequency — and determination — than other high-profile Republicans do, there’s a reason.
For years, Ryan has cultivated a reputation on both sides of the aisle as a paragon of decency, earnestness, and principle; that rare creature of D.C. who seems genuinely guided by good faith. To many in Washington — including no small number of reporters — Ryan’s support for Trump is not merely a political miscalculation, but a craven betrayal.
As one senior GOP Hill staffer put it, “Your heroes always let you down.”