In many ways, a showdown between Paul Ryan and Donald Trump was inevitable.
Conflict between the wonky Speaker of the House and the controversial presumptive Republican presidential nominee has been brewing for months as Ryan’s goal of presenting the American people a high-minded GOP in a vital election year has been threatened by Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric on topics like immigration.
Ryan had to reluctantly weigh in on the GOP presidential primary to refute Trump’s positions, including his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and his too-slow disavowal of the support he received from white supremacists.
The day after Trump vanquished the last of his 16 primary opponents, Ryan took the gloves off, at least for him. Asked on CNN whether he supports Trump, he replied, “I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I’m not there right now. And I hope to, though, and I want to. But I think what is required is that we unify the party. And I think the bulk of the burden on unifying the party will have to come from our presumptive nominee.”
“This is the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of Jack Kemp. And we don’t always nominate a Lincoln and a Reagan every four years, but we hope that our nominee aspires to be Lincoln and Reagan-esque,” he added, saying he hopes Trump “advances the principles of our party and appeals to a wide, vast majority of Americans.”
The comments suggested that divisions within the GOP could only deepen before Election Day.
Then Trump shot back.
“I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda,” he said in a statement. “Perhaps in the future we can work together and come to an agreement about what is best for the American people. They have been treated so badly for so long that it is about time for politicians to put them first!”
The apparent animosity between the Republican nominee and the top GOP office-holder in the country got party leaders working like mad to mend a possibly catastrophic break. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus is trying to get the pair in a room together for a meeting next week, an idea a top Ryan aide endorsed on Twitter.
Truly mending the rift won’t be easy. Ryan and Trump are at odds on a host of issues, including trade and foreign policy.
On top of that, friction between the two may carry some political advantages for each. Trump has risen to the top of the GOP field in part by criticizing the party’s politics-as-usual leadership. And Ryan might see a benefit in distancing himself from his party’s presidential choice; he, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is worried that having Trump at the top of the ticket could lead to a down-ticket tsunami, with incumbent Republicans swept out of office by an unstoppable Democratic tide.
If there’s enough room between Trump and congressional Republicans, the GOP might be able to hold onto its majorities in both chambers. If not, Ryan, who last month delivered a Sherman-esque statement that he would not seek the nomination in 2016, might turn his gaze to the 2020 race.
And by making his remarks now, months before the RNC meets in Cleveland in July, Ryan is giving himself plenty of time to wring possible concessions and promises from the man who famously wrote “The Art of the Deal.”
Asked whether he’ll be able to manage a convention where he himself doesn’t support the candidate being nominated, Ryan demurred. "Look, I'm just a guy giving you my piece of mind,” he said.
He knows it’s not that simple.