House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Thursday that he cannot support or endorse presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at this time.
“I’m just not ready to do that at this point,” Ryan said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” “I think he needs to do more to unify this party.”
For months, Ryan has insisted that he needed to stay neutral in the presidential race because of his role as chairman of the Republican National Convention. However, the Wisconsin Republican has said on many occasions that he would support whomever ended up as the GOP nominee .
His comments on Thursday drew a similarly negative response from Trump.
“I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda,” the New York billionaire said in a statement. “Perhaps in the future we can work together and come to an agreement about what is best for the American people.”
A Party Divided: GOP Leaders Split on Supporting Trump
Why Now? Ryan’s decision to speak out against Trump now could be viewed as both courageous and cowardly.
As speaker, Ryan would be expected to support the Republican nominee. His inability to do so could likely anger party leaders who feel that not embracing Trump will only cause further rifts in the GOP.
At the same time, Ryan could have spoken up sooner when there were multiple candidates in the race without endorsing anyone. He has previously raised concerns about Trump’s views, like his idea to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S., but he has never specifically called on Trump to prove that he can be presidential until Thursday.
“It’s time to go from tapping into anger to channeling that anger in solutions,” Ryan said. “It’s time to set aside bullying, to set aside belittlement and appeal to higher aspirations, appeal to what is good in us.”
[Related: What If Paul Ryan Had Run?]
So why might Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, be speaking more forcefully now? He was effectively backed into a corner when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz decided to drop out of the presidential race because it meant he could no longer avoid questions about Trump that were previously dismissed as hypothetical.
The more likely answer is that Ryan is just coming to terms with the fact that, barring the unexpected, Trump will be the Republican nominee.
“I thought about this two days ago,” he said. “I thought actually this thing was going to go to June 7 at the very least, probably to a convention, and so this is all pretty new for us.”
Trump needs to prove to Republicans from all wings of the party that he can be their standard bearer, Ryan said. His comments will help provide cover for vulnerable Republicans who remain hesitant to support the controversial billionaire.
“I think conservatives want to know: Does he share our values?” the speaker said. “Looking back on the primary campaign, there are instances and episodes that question that.”
[Related: Meet the Republican Senate Candidate Who Won’t Vote for Trump]
Plans for Unity Trump said in his Indiana victory speech Tuesday that he plans to unify the party and that people who have previously said vicious things about him are now lending their support.
Trump did strike a softer tone in that speech by complimenting Cruz after the Texan spent the day lobbing insults at him. It likely will take more than that to win the support of establishment Republicans like Ryan.
“Saying we’re unified doesn’t in and of itself unify us,” the speaker said. “But actually taking the principles we all believe in, showing that there’s a dedication to those and running a principled campaign that Republicans can be proud about and that can actually appeal to a majority of Americans — that to me is what it takes to unify this party.”
Ryan didn’t have a direct answer when asked if he could preside over the convention if Trump doesn’t do enough to win his support.
“I’m just a guy giving you my piece of mind,” he said.
If Trump doesn’t win over hesitant Republicans like Ryan, it could be a low-turnout year for the GOP, since as Ryan put it, “No Republican should ever think about supporting Hillary Clinton.”