House Speaker Paul Ryan has had enough with the Republican frontrunner.
Ryan has largely been evasive when it comes to this year’s whacky Republican race for the White House, but on Tuesday he waded into campaign politics to publicly lash Donald Trump—though not by name—for refusing to denounce David Duke and the Klu Klux Klan over the weekend.
But this public shaming could mark a new strategy from congressional leaders to distance themselves and their candidates from Trump if Republican voters put him on the top of the party’s ticket in November.
“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games: They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” a visibly annoyed Ryan said after lamenting the conversation leading into Super Tuesday on the GOP side has been about white supremacist groups.
“This party does not prey on people’s prejudices—we appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln,” Speaker Ryan continued. “We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and of our country. This is fundamental. And if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this. I hope this is the last time I need to speak out on this.”
Ryan’s criticism shows that he doesn’t believe the reality TV star’s story that he couldn’t hear Jake Tapper’s questions about David Duke—a name Trump repeated and refused to denounce while live on air—and the KKK on CNN due to a faulty earpiece during a Sunday interview.
This is the second time Speaker Ryan has verbally whipped Trump in public. The first came after the real estate mogul unveiled his “proposal” to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
“Freedom of religion is a fundamental constitutional principle; it is a founding principle of this country,” Ryan said back in December. “Not only are there many Muslims serving in our armed forces dying for this country, there are Muslims serving right here in the House working every day to uphold the Constitution.”
But this is a new twist in the slowly unfolding saga between Republican Party leaders and the new, growing Trump wing of the party.
All fall and winter long most Republicans in Congress, including party leaders, mostly sat on the sidelines as Trump’s popularity grew. It wasn’t until he started knocking out his opponents and racking up victories in early voting states that the Capitol Hill establishment started freaking out. Though most of that consternation is still kept from the public.
That’s why Ryan’s comments thundered on Capitol Hill. Trump’s comments seemed to strike a personal chord for the Speaker. That may be because he’s charged with laying out the party’s platform for the general election and he knows they need to expand, not shrink the Republican tent.
In 2012, when Ryan was the party’s vice presidential nominee the GOP got trounced when it came to minority votes. The Romney/Ryan ticket attracted a measly 6 percent of the African-American vote. They also only got 27 percent of the Latino vote—while self-deportation was en vogue back then, Trump’s xenophobic politics are promising to drive that number down even further.
Still, many rank-and-file lawmakers on Capitol Hill are terrified of Trump and won’t dare cross him, lest their constituents pledge allegiance to Trump over a Republican incumbent. “I’ll wait to see what happens, nothing’s happened yet,” Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA) told The Daily Beast when asked if he could support Trump.
Trump has now secured the endorsements from five sitting members of Congress, which analysts predict will grow as he continues to pick up delegates leading into the convention.
But the ascension of Trump is even unnerving some staunch conservatives on Capitol Hill. “It’s my opinion that it does hurt down the ballot,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) told reporters. “Traditionally, conservatives have not gotten so easily disoriented. Right now everybody is angry.”
That anger is on display across the nation today as voters are expected to come out in droves largely to support Trump. When asked if the GOP is on the brink of destruction, Ryan demurred.
“I never believe that our party is beyond the point of repair, but of course we don’t want to see division within our parties. We are conservatives, we believe in the American idea,” Ryan said before adding that he will throw his support behind Trump—even with his quiet endorsement of racism, xenophobia, and sexism—if Republican voters pick him. “I plan to support the nominee. I think I’ve said enough this morning about what’s happening right now—but my plan is to support the nominee.”