WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan told fellow GOP lawmakers Monday that he will neither defend Donald Trump nor campaign with him before the election.
He told them they should feel free to handle the party’s lightning-rod nominee as they see fit.
But Ryan stopped short of rescinding his own tepid endorsement of Trump, during a conference call with House GOP colleagues amid a full-blown election crisis for Republicans.
Ryan’s message to colleagues was another remarkable moment in a precedent-shattering campaign — the party’s top elected official virtually washing his hands of his nominee.
But at the same time, this was not a dramatic break from Ryan’s past stance on Trump. The speaker has been a frequent critic and has long refused to criticize anti-Trump colleagues in his caucus.
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel back in June, Ryan said he did not have a problem with fellow Republicans who refuse to support Trump.
"I think people are going to make their own minds up. ... I wouldn't tell a person to do something that they believe violates their conscience," Ryan said at the time. “I'm not going to hold an individual person's decision against them."
In Monday’s conference call, Ryan told GOP House members, “You all need to do what’s best for you in your district,” according to someone on the call.
The call came three days after an explosive tape surfaced of Trump crudely bragging about making sexual advances on women.
It came one day after Trump responded to the furor by lashing out in the second presidential debate at both Hillary and Bill Clinton over the former president's history with women.
By sticking to a middling course on Trump — refusing to actively support him but declining to rescind his endorsement — Ryan will continue to draw fire from both sides of the Trump divide in his party.
Ryan suggested in the call he is willing to live with that but said he was doing so for the sake of protecting the party’s House majority.
The speaker said he would devote the remainder of the campaign to making sure that Clinton does not get a “blank check” in the form of a Democratic congress.
The obvious premise of that message: that Republicans should assume a Clinton victory at the top of the ticket.
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