Politics

Ryan Can't Win on Trump

Trump supporters and critics ask speaker tough questions at town hall

Speaker Paul D. Ryan defended his decision to endorse Donald Trump at a CNN-hosted town hall Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Speaker Paul D. Ryan's town hall event Tuesday night made one thing abundantly clear: He can't win when it comes to the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump.   

Trump critics and supporters both asked the Wisconsin Republican tough questions about his stance on billionaire mogul during the CNN-hosted town hall in New York. The speaker's answers didn't seem to please too many.   

Essentially, Ryan's support of Trump boils down to this: He feels the country is faced with a decision between two people, and that Trump is a better choice than Hillary Clinton.   

Some of Trump's positions that the speaker disagrees with — like temporarily banning foreign Muslims from entering the country, and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants — are outweighed by the many policy goals they share in common.   

"We don’t have people who run for office who 100 percent reflect all of our views," Ryan said.   

But those middle-of-the-road answers just don't excite. To the Trump supporters, Ryan's qualified endorsement is too weak. And to his critics, the speaker's insistence on supporting Trump despite his divisive rhetoric is frustrating.   

It's no surprise then that about half of the questions Ryan was asked Tuesday were about Trump. And while they were tough questions, considering many of them came from Republican voters, they're no different from the questions that the media has been asking the speaker for months.   

How can Ryan morally justify his support for Trump, "somebody who is openly racist?" asked Zachary Marcone.  

Not supporting Trump "basically means you’re going to help elect Hillary Clinton," Ryan said, pointing out that he's spoken out when Trump has said things that he felt crossed a line.   

Peggy Padavano, a Trump supporter, then told Ryan she's "disheartened" with him and Republican leaders for not fully getting behind the New York mogul, and asked when he was going to start advocating for the GOP nominee.   

"10 seconds ago," Ryan joked.   

The speaker then explained that he initially hesitated to offer Trump his support because he wanted to ensure Trump shared the same goals as House Republicans.   

"I wanted to make sure that he understood where we were trying to go and that we had a willing partner to take us there," Ryan said. After spending a month talking to Trump about the House Republicans' "A Better Way" agenda, Ryan said Trump did understand and proved himself a willing partner.  

Another question: Would Ryan as chairman of the Republican National Convention support an open floor process in which delegates can vote their conscience?  

"It is not my job as chair of the convention to tell the delegates how to run their convention," Ryan said. "I won’t put my thumb on the scale as to what these delegates do."  

When the questioner, Steve Lonegan, who worked on Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign in New Jersey, said the speaker's response was a "non-answer answer," Ryan responded that the people who ran to be delegate did so knowing the "rules of the road" in their states on whether they'd be bound to support a specific candidate.  

Kerry Cahill, whose father was killed in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, asked Ryan how he explains to Muslim allies his endorsement of a man who wants to ban them from the United States.   

"I disagree with him on it. It's just that simple," Ryan said, before quickly adding, "Look, no two people agree on everything."  

"We have a binary choice,” the speaker said.   

When Cahill said she disagreed with that, Ryan responded, "The libertarian is basically voting for Hillary Clinton" — an apparent reference to Gary Johnson's Libertarian Party candidacy.  

Perhaps the most telling defense Ryan offered for his support of Trump was this: "I’m a party leader and I do believe that I have certain institutional responsibilities … to keep our party unified."  

He also said he had an obligation to respect the will of the Republican voters that chose Trump as their nominee.   

"If I had not done that I believe I would have contributed to basically cutting our party in half and thereby by default, granting the presidency … to Hillary Clinton. And I couldn’t do that," Ryan said when asked if he would've decided differently on endorsing Trump if he wasn't speaker. "If I was Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, I would’ve had less of an impact but probably the same effect."

Contact McPherson at  lindseymcpherson@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter  @lindsemcpherson .

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.