Oh, to have been a fly on the wall with House Speaker Paul Ryan when he watched Donald Trump threaten to jail his political opponent if he wins.
Ryan, of course, made Trump’s disregard for the U.S. Constitution and its limits on the presidency one of his core reasons for not endorsing the Republican presidential nominee right away in May.
But Sunday night, Trump not only crossed a line that has never in American history been transgressed — “You’d be in jail,” he said to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton when she raised the prospect of his presidency — but his campaign doubled down on it after the debate. It posted a picture of Trump
The question Republican leaders like Ryan are asking themselves now is, “Do we do what we think is right and denounce Trump once and for all, and risk losing our majorities in hopes we can save the party long term? Or do we hang on for dear life and hope we can clean up the damage after the election?”
I also heard from multiple sources close to House Republican leadership and to Ryan himself that there had been fairly serious talk Saturday and Sunday of taking some action to distance the party from Trump, after the disclosure Friday of his lewd comments in 2005 about sexually assaulting women.
If Trump and his campaign continue to talk about jailing Clinton — even though actual lawyers in Trump’s inner circle like Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.,
But not many independent Republican operatives I spoke with Sunday night — and I focused only on experienced, battle-hardened vote counters — said Ryan should distance himself from Trump. This was near the start of the debate, when it still wasn’t clear that Trump would deliver a debate performance that, while authoritarian in flavor and
Many of these same operatives also said they did not think Trump’s horrible, no good past few days had put the GOP’s House majority — a 60-seat edge — in danger. “We aren’t in that zone yet,” said Mike Shields, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC aligned with Ryan that is spending $20 million to help the GOP keep its House majority.
But a few minutes after midnight, a House leadership aide texted me: “House in play.” I asked if this was based on any actual data. Yes, the aide said, but more will need to come in over the next few days to be certain.
These two things — the likelihood of losing the House and of leaders like Ryan ditching Trump — are linked. If it becomes clear that Trump’s scorched-earth campaign is going to lose both the Senate and the House for Republicans, then there is no reason for Ryan and other Republicans to stand by him. But if it’s close, and the outcome is in question, many Republicans think a decision to follow principle and “do the right thing” would actually be the wrong thing because it would give total control of the government to Democrats.
The immediate reaction to the debate was that Trump might have applied a tourniquet to his wound to stop some of the bleeding, and would be able to stave off a wholesale party revolt.
But Trump has put the GOP in a nearly untenable position over the past few days and on Sunday night. He’s done two simultaneous things: alienated groups of voters like suburban women who have been crucial to winning in swing states over the past few presidential cycles, and excited his base voters, who are also key for Senate races in states that will decide the majority. Now any move to repudiate Trump would infuriate some of the most committed Republican voters who are with him.
“I’m just giving you the political reality, and this is the political reality,” Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “Donald Trump delivered the attack against the Clinton machine that the Republican base in Middle America have been waiting for years now. So good luck in Pensacola, Fla., saying, ‘I’m off of Donald Trump.’”
Trump has now created a nightmare scenario that is highly possible. Republicans could fail to win back moderate Republicans and women if they reject Trump, because doing it now looks utterly calculated. And they would also turn off Trump’s most loyal supporters, egged on by Trump himself, who has already
But for all the hypothetical scenarios, one Republican operative who had a senior role on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign said he wanted Ryan “for one time [to] do what’s in your heart, not your brain.”
“Do what’s right,” he said.
And Terry Sullivan, a senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — and now working for a super-PAC in Rubio’s Senate reelection campaign — said he would, in fact, advise Ryan to unendorse Trump.
“First, you’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror and be on the right side of history,” Sullivan said. “Second, we have to save the Republican brand.”
Sullivan did not extend his argument to Rubio, who has denounced Trump but not withdrawn his endorsement of the nominee, and he cannot communicate with Rubio’s campaign under federal election law. But his argument applies just as much to Rubio as it does to Ryan.
Trump, Sullivan said, “is gonna lose. So we have to think beyond the election. We can’t be the party that is painted with the broad brush of Trump’s rhetoric. We have to begin to distance so we don’t pay the price after the election.”