Paul Ryan, the top Republican in the U.S. Congress, took the extraordinary step on Monday of distancing himself from Donald Trump, risking a backlash from lawmakers and deepening a crisis over his party’s struggling presidential nominee.
Reuters reports stated that in a conference call with congressional Republicans, Ryan all but conceded that Democrat Hillary Clinton was likely to win the White House on Nov. 8 and said he would put his full energy into preserving Republican majorities in Congress so as not to give her a “blank check.”
Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said he would not defend Trump or campaign for him after the uproar over the New York businessman’s sexually aggressive comments that surfaced on Friday.
Ryan’s announcement added to the party’s worst turmoil in decades and reinforced the growing sense of isolation around Trump, who has never previously run for public office.
Clinton has led Trump in most national opinion polls for months and Trump’s poll numbers have begun to drop further since the emergence on Friday of a video from 2005 showing the former reality TV star bragging crudely about groping women and making unwanted sexual advances.
Trump hit back at Ryan, who was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, and who has frequently been critical of him.
“Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Ryan, who had expressed disgust over the tape and cancelled a campaign event with Trump at the weekend, did not completely cut ties to Trump. The speaker went back on the Republican conference call later to clarify that he was not withdrawing his endorsement.
Many Republican members of Congress are concerned that Trump’s chaotic campaign could ruin their chances of holding their majorities in the House and Senate in the November election and could inflict long-term damage on the party.
During a weekend dominated by criticism of Trump over the lewd remarks, a string of members of Congress, governors and other prominent Republicans called on him to drop out of the race.
House Republicans gave Ryan a rough ride on the call, according to some participants.
“There was an undeniable opposition to the speaker’s tepid support of our nominee,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Trump supporter, said, in a comment passed on by an aide.
Many other lawmakers, some of whom did not want to be named publicly criticizing the speaker, said members frequently told Ryan on the call to stand by Trump.
Nonetheless, nearly half of all 331 incumbent Republican senators, Congress members and governors have condemned Trump’s remarks, and roughly 1 in 10 have called on him to drop out of the race, according to a Reuters review of official statements and local news coverage.
But any attempt to replace Trump on the ballot this close to Election Day would face huge legal and logistical hurdles.
A defiant Trump went on the offensive in a vicious presidential debate on Sunday, saying former Secretary of State Clinton would go to jail if he were president and attacking her husband, Bill Clinton, for his treatment of women.
The debate, the second of three before the vote, was remarkable for the brutal nature of the exchanges between the two.
Trump may have done just enough in the encounter to keep his campaign afloat. But Republicans who have seen their party torn apart by Trump’s candidacy are once again faced with a familiar dilemma: abandon a badly wounded candidate or stand behind him in the dimming hope that he can still win them the White House.
BAD POLL FOR TRUMP
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll released on Monday showed Clinton increasing her lead. The survey, conducted after the video release but before the debate, showed Clinton with 46 percent support among likely voters in a four-way matchup including two minor party candidates, compared to 35 percent for Trump.
Ryan, whose focus in politics has been his fiscal conservatism, is viewed by some party officials as eyeing a presidential run himself in 2020. He was slow to endorse Trump and has had several public disagreements with the candidate, notably accusing Trump in June of making a “textbook definition of a racist comment” against a Mexican-American judge.
Before Monday’s call among Republican lawmakers, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, urged Ryan to hold firm in his support of Trump.
“I certainly hope Speaker Ryan keeps his word and endorsement of Donald Trump,” Conway told CBS, noting that Ryan was booed by a crowd last weekend after disinviting Trump to an event in the speaker’s home state of Wisconsin.
The Republican National Committee, which is the party’s leadership body and helps fund candidates, has scheduled a conference call with its members on Monday evening. It is expected to discuss the Trump controversy.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, on Friday called Trump’s comments on the videotape “repugnant.” But he has not withdrawn his support for Trump and has not commented since his initial remarks.
Stanley Hubbard, a Minnesota broadcasting magnate and major Trump donor, said he was still backing the Republican nominee even though he was upset by the tone of the campaign and did not appear to have high expectations of a Trump presidency.
“I can hardly wait for the next four years to be over but listen, we are not picking a president based on morals we are picking a president based on what they can do for the country,’ Hubbard told Reuters.