Reps. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia and Dennis Ross of Florida — who, as House whips, help Republican leaders muster support to pass legislation — told POLITICO in interviews on Friday that they disagreed with Ryan’s decision to break with Trump in a bombshell interview a day earlier. Both lawmakers said they believe their leader is in denial about how Republican voters feel about the real-estate tycoon.
“I honestly don’t understand what Paul’s thinking — I don’t get it,” said Westmoreland, who is retiring after this year. “I try not to give advice to the speaker, but I think it just really brought about, in my opinion, even more confusion to this thing.”
“Trust me, I haven’t been on the Donald Trump bandwagon, but I will support him, and I disagree with Ryan’s comment,” Ross said. “I think it’s time we unite (and) … extend an olive branch and start working this out.”
The sharp rebuke from two senior, longtime GOP leadership allies is a rare sight in the House. It highlights a schism in the lower chamber that's expected to grow next week when Congress returns from recess and some House Republicans line up behind their leader and others rally around the GOP standard bearer-in-waiting.
Ryan and Trump will meet face-to-face Thursday at Republican headquarters in Washington to see if there’s any way to reconcile their differences in both style and substance. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will play counselor, after Ryan said Thursday he could not support Trump and Trump’s camp fired back Friday morning Ryan has no business being speaker if he can't back the party's pick for president.
Lawmakers will be asked to take a side: the young, conservative budget wonk that his party establishment clamored for to run for president himself? Or the bombastic bomb-thrower whose rocked the party with his surprise voter-appeal.
Ryan's choice of words — that there are "lots of questions" about Trump that conservatives want answered, "myself included" — suggests that his stand might be partly or even mostly a calculated attempt to try to mold the unwieldy nominee into one who thinks and acts more like the speaker.
Trump, for instance, has pitched banning Muslims from the country — an idea Ryan says is the antithesis of America’s founding. Trump is anti-trade, while the speaker thinks free markets are simply good economics. And then there were those quips about Hispanics and his initial refusal to reject white supremacist David Duke’s support of his candidacy — which flew in the face of Ryan’s efforts to diversify the GOP base.
Pennsylvanian Republican Charlie Dent, who leads the moderate GOP Tuesday Group, said he's all in favor of doing anything to change Trump's positions. The speaker, Dent said, is trying to save the party — and as far as he’s concerned Trump still “has a great deal of work to do to convince the American people, myself included, that he’s able to lead this nation.”
“I thought that Paul Ryan struck the right tone and the right balance,” he said. “Paul had to step up and disassociate himself and distance himself from some of these comments. … We’re concerned [that] his comments are affecting our shot at the White House.”
Westmoreland, however, said Ryan’s remarks just make it hard for everyone to get on the same page. The Georgia lawmaker has been trying to convince his conservative friends that they have a choice: embrace Trump now, or roll out the red carpet for a President Hillary Clinton. Ryan’s comments essentially blessed a third option — hold out for now — that Westmoreland believes is poor politics.
Westmoreland wishes Ryan had been more subtle. “He could have come out and said, ‘Look, I’ll be 100 percent behind whomever comes out of our convention,’ and that would have been a simple way of saying: ‘I’m not endorsing Trump right now,’” he said.
Ross said it’s hard to take a stand like Ryan’s when 45 percent of Republicans in his district voted for Trump. That’s his predicament right now.
“I’m listening: They’re fed up with Washington politicians,” he said. “And unfortunately I think there are some in my party who don’t get what is happening.”
Thus far, there doesn’t seem to be a distinct pattern as to whether members endorse and support Trump now, or hold out as Ryan has chosen to do. Many believed lawmakers in the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, for example, would line up behind Trump. But, in turns out, many of the group's members are repelled by the New Yorker over what they call his “disdain” for the Constitution.
Establishment types, one would think, would line up with Ryan. But Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) endorsed Trump late last month.
Meanwhile, vulnerable lawmakers facing tight reelection races are coming down on both sides: Broadly speaking, they take Ryan’s approach if they’re facing a threat from Democrats on the left, but stand with Trump if they’re facing a primary challenge from the right.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), for example, faces a tough reelection battle in Northern Virginia, an area where Republicans fear an Trump backlash could put their seats in jeopardy. Comstock, who blasted Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and will square off against former Rep. Jim Moran’s (D-Va.) ex-wife this fall, essentially echoed Ryan’s comments on Trump this week.
"I can't support Hillary Clinton. But I'm like any voter, a candidate has to earn my vote, and at this time Donald Trump has not done so," she said, according to The Winchester Star. “We're going to watch the process. I've expressed my concerns before."
Contrast that with another vulnerable Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers, whose North Carolina seat is being challenged by a candidate to her right. She told POLITICO earlier this week that Donald Trumpmania has “opened my eyes.”
“I had spent a lot of time listening to the voters and their concerns and how they felt about Donald Trump, and it really opened my eyes and made me realize that Donald Trump is having a conversation with the American people that many of us, especially us Republicans, have absolutely missed for years and years,” Ellmers said. “We in the Republican Party have talked about how we need to bring more people into the party, do a better job increasing votes and connecting to the American people, and here’s Donald Trump doing it and yet there are many in Washington who are kind of rejecting that.”
Westmoreland believes that some of his fellow Republicans simply don't get it, Ryan included.
“I just don’t think any of them realize… the reason Trump is the nominee is because people are mad at Republicans in Congress for not getting anything done,” he said. “We brag about a lot of stuff we do, but most of the time members are sent home to defend their votes rather than going home and bragging about them. ... And they’re looking at Trump for a change.”
Ross predicted that many in the GOP conference will be dissatisfied with Ryan's stance, and he hopes that will pressure the party to coalesce.
“I think we all should humble ourselves to a degree and unite,” he said. “We can’t be angry and upset and say, ‘We’re just going to take our ball and go home.’ That is not why we were elected. We’re supposed to be leaders and play with the cards we’re dealt.”
Author: Rachael Bade