Milbank: Paul Ryan's soap opera with Trump
WASHINGTON – On Tuesday night, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump disparaged New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, probably the most prominent Hispanic Republican officeholder in America, saying at a rally in Albuquerque that she has a bad record and "she's got to do a better job."
At the same rally, where windows were smashed and Trump and his supporters clashed with demonstrators, the candidate also mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren's claim to Native American roots by repeatedly calling her "Pocahontas."
And House Speaker Paul Ryan, sitting down with reporters on Wednesday, wanted to talk about policy? It wasn't going to happen.
The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis, noting Trump's attack on Martinez, asked Ryan, "Do you have a partner who's interested in party unity?"
"She's a friend of mine, and I think she's a good governor. I will leave it at that," the speaker replied.
Would the speaker's policy agenda include plans for deporting millions of people, as Trump has suggested?
"That's not in our agenda," Ryan said.
Should Trump apologize for belittling prisoners of war, the physically disabled and women's appearances?
"I'm focusing on what we can control here in the House," Ryan said.
And what he can control is, well, not much. Ryan had wanted a sit-down with reporters for a "pen and pad" session to talk policy. But, unbeknownst to the speaker, his staff released a flock of photographers into the room just as questions were starting.
"Jeez. Good grief. Goddamned," Ryan said with a laugh when the barrage of shutter clicks began.
He can probably blame Trump for that, too. Late Tuesday, Trump campaign officials leaked word that Ryan, who had said he wasn't ready to endorse Trump, would indeed be endorsing Trump as soon as Wednesday. This, like much of what comes out of Trump's campaign, was false. But it turned Ryan's policy session into another installment of his soap opera with Trump.
"I don't know where all this got from," he pleaded when CNN's Manu Raju asked whether he had made a decision to back Trump. "I have not made a decision and ... I have nothing more to add."
What the speaker did have to contribute was an albatross of a metaphor.
"We're a big-tent party with lots of different wings of the Republican Party, and we (he and Trump) clearly come from different wings of the Republican Party — there's no two ways about that," he said. "The question is, if we're going to unify, can we figure out what is the common foundation that ties all these wings together?"
Actually, if you tie a lot of wings together and attach them to a foundation, it's pretty obvious what will happen: That bird won't fly.
"Republicans in the House have said, look, Paul Ryan eventually has to endorse Donald Trump," Fox News' Chad Pergram informed the speaker Wednesday. "Why not just rip the Band-Aid off?"
Replied Ryan: "I'm really focused on my day job."
But he surely has to be focused on a momentous calculation: He could withhold support, potentially costing Trump the presidency and perhaps losing his House majority. Or he could support Trump and have Trump define conservatives, and Republicans, for years — even if it's with isolation, trade wars and racial strife.
"My worry," one top Republican official remarked during the primary campaign, "is not that Trump will lose the general election. It's that he could win." Cementing the alienation of women, immigrants and non-whites would shorten the fuse on the demographic time bomb underneath the GOP.
Ryan seems to be hoping that Trump, in exchange for the speaker's endorsement, will offer him a token concession: some sort of blessing of his agenda of economic growth, national security, health care, anti-poverty measures and limits on presidential power. "We need to normalize these ideas," the speaker said.
But there is no way to finesse this, no fig leaf big enough to cover the gap between them.
How does he square Trump's expansive view of executive power with his own plan to limit such power?
"That is one of my big concerns, not just with Donald Trump but with whoever the next president may be."
Is he concerned that Trump doesn't share his views on entitlements?
"We're going to focus on our own proposals."
Is Ryan disappointed there aren't more discussions with Trump?
"I can control what I can control."
But Ryan can't control Trump, nor win real concessions from him.
As the highest-ranking Republican in America, he has a stark and binary choice to make: tie his and his party's future to Trump, or walk away.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.