House Speaker Paul Ryan and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump met Thursday morning in Washington, D.C., to hash out their differences. Afterward, Trump met with other congressional leaders as well.
Ryan shocked Trump and the political world last week by announcing he was “not ready” to endorse Trump. And after their meeting — and despite the many assurances from GOP leaders like RNC Chairman Reince Priebus that the meeting went “great” and was “all positive” — Ryan remained in the same place, withholding his support for the Republican nominee.
Here are five takeaways from the joint statement released by Ryan and Trump, and from Ryan’s press conference afterward.
1. Ryan did not endorse Trump, and did not commit to doing so.
“Do you expect to endorse him?” a reporter asked Ryan. “Yeah, I think this is going in a positive direction,” Ryan said. He later called the meeting “an encouraging start.” It’s likely that Ryan will drag out this process as long as possible. There’s very little trust between the two men, and Ryan knows that whatever he might get Trump to agree to, Trump is just as likely to abandon it within 24 hours. Trump agreed in the joint statement to “advance a conservative agenda,” but just days ago he was dismissing the idea that the Republican Party’s identity is based on its conservative ideas.
Ryan did go out of his way to compliment the depth of Trump’s support, noting that he’s received “more votes than any Republican primary nominee in the history of our country.” But Ryan made clear that he sees himself as representing the 17 million people who voted against Trump — who himself has received the support of 10.7 million people — in the Republican primary. “There are people who were for Donald Trump, who were for Ted Cruz, or for John Kasich, who were for Marco Rubio and everybody else. And it’s very important that we don’t fake unifying,” Ryan said.
As much as both sides in this standoff are publicly playing down their disagreements, the fact is they are miles apart on key issues — such as trade, immigration and entitlement reform — and on what kind of message the GOP should run on this fall. Their joint statement said that they have “few differences,” despite all evidence to the contrary. But in recognition of the fact that their differences are in fact so great that they might not ever come to a détente, they said they have an “opportunity” to unify, but did not predict that it would happen.
2. Ryan adopted the tone of a parent with a wayward child.
Ryan said 11 times that he was “encouraged” by the meeting or that it was “encouraging.” Ryan set the agenda and dictated the terms, and is waiting to see if Trump can meet the standards that he is setting. Trump supporters must be aghast at this turn of events, and Trump will likely have to convince them that he is still the defiant and rebellious outsider they believe him to be.
Ryan said he wants to keep meeting to “make sure we are operating off the same core principles.” There was every indication in the way Ryan said it, and in Trump’s own history of contestable and conflicting statements on policy and political philosophy, that Ryan is positioning himself as Trump’s teacher. Again, that doesn’t seem tenable for long.
3. Ryan reiterated that executive power is at the heart of his concerns about Trump, but expanded his critique to having a positive message.
Ryan said he and Trump “discussed the core principles that tie us all together: principles like the Constitution, the separation of powers, the fact that we have an executive that has gone way beyond the boundaries of the Constitution, and how it’s important to us that we restore Article I of the Constitution.”
Ryan emphasized this in his interview on CNN last week when he announced he was not going to endorse Trump right away. His chief concern with Trump is that the businessman and reality TV star doesn’t appreciate the ways in which the American presidency has — in Ryan’s view — become far too powerful and out of balance with the legislative and judicial branches of government. Ryan and many others believe that President Obama, like Republican and Democratic presidents before him, has gone around Congress too often with executive orders and federal agency rule-making, and want to rein in that overreach. It’s a view frequently raised by rank-and-file Republican primary voters at campaign events, as well.
But Ryan also added a key component to the standard he is setting for Trump: He wants the party to have an optimistic, hopeful message that inspires voters rather than an angry one that draws on and feeds the frustrations of Americans without offering workable solutions.
“How do we keep adding and adding voters while not subtracting any voters? And to me, that means a positive vision based on core principles, taking those principles, applying them to the problems facing our country today, and offering people positive solutions,” Ryan said.
This is a very high bar for Trump, and maybe an unachievable one.
4. Ryan subtly rebuked the press for hyping his meeting with Trump, even as he played the media game like a pro.
Before taking questions about his meeting with Trump, Ryan drew attention to work the House is doing to address the nation’s drug and opioid addiction crisis, and then made light of the fact that there will be little media coverage of that issue.
“Right now, more Americans die every year from drug overdoses than they do in car accidents,” Ryan said. “We are acting on 18 bills to deal with this.” Then he added: “I hope that each and every one of you will be back here when we sign this bill.”
Ryan even rolled his eyes on Wednesday during another press conference as reporters peppered him with questions about his then upcoming meeting.
He has a point that too much media coverage these days is ephemeral and superficial, while issues of real importance are ignored because they are not exciting or easy to explain. But Ryan and his communications staff are experienced pros and know how to play the public relations game. He has been aggressive about making himself available for press interviews since taking the position late last year, and is clearly seeking to increase his public exposure.
Ryan is exploiting the same thing that Trump has: the needs of the minute-to-minute news cycle for fresh material. His press conferences the day before the meeting with Trump and immediately following it were actually his regularly scheduled weekly events. But the scheduling of the meeting with Trump to maximize the power of those two standing press conferences was not coincidental.
It’s also noteworthy that no photos or video footage of Trump and Ryan together emerged from the meeting. A picture of the two of them together would undermine Ryan’s power play by signaling that he has already capitulated, and his team made sure this did not happen.
5. There are still a number of questions that have yet to be asked of Speaker Ryan.
Ryan is a disciplined communicator and he didn’t reveal much in his remarks to the press. Some questions that could be asked of him going forward include:
“Speaker Ryan, you have concerns about Trump’s commitment to basic constitutional principles. How is it that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, your right hand, as well as many other Republicans, have endorsed Trump?”
“Do you have any obligation to move closer to Trump’s views, and if so, in what areas?”
“What specific commitments on the issue of restoring Article 1 of the Constitution would you like to see from Trump?”
“Does it weaken your hand in these negotiations that you lead an institution that is less popular than syphilis?”
Credit for that last question to my colleague, Olivier Knox.