This, Mr. Speaker, is what you get for embracing Donald Trump.
When Paul Ryan, after a long Hamlet routine, decided to get behind Trump last year, he took a calculated risk that the erratic presidential candidate could become a vessel for the conservative policies the House speaker long aspired to implement. Instead, Ryan has become an enabler of Trump’s chaotic and ethically challenged governance.
Trump gave Ryan little help in the House GOP’s effort to replace Obamacare, and when that project collapsed last week in the biggest legislative failure in more than a decade, Trump included Ryan in those he blamed. Trump tweeted a plug for a Fox News show hours before the host made an on-air call for Ryan to resign.
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Ryan, meanwhile, finds himself shielding Trump from an investigation into Trump’s and his top advisers’ ties to Russia. Ryan stands by the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, who canceled a public hearing that could have embarrassed Trump after the White House stated its objection; went on a secret trip to White House grounds to gather what he considered exculpatory material and then released it publicly while keeping fellow committee members in the dark; and quarreled with the FBI for investigating Trump’s Russia ties.
Ryan now finds himself tethered to a president with a 36 percent approval rating, while the House’s legislative and investigative functions have collapsed. And Trump is talking about bypassing House conservatives and working with Democrats.
“I have talked about the need to go from being an opposition party to being a proposition party and a governing party,” Ryan told reporters after the House GOP caucus’s health-bill postmortem Tuesday morning. Chuckling, he added: “It may take a little bit more time.”
Ryan approached the microphones with exaggerated good cheer, voicing a hearty “Hey, guys!” and attempting to josh with photographers about the days of Polaroid cameras. Ryan assured everybody the GOP meeting was “very, very good,” and his deputies dutifully echoed him.
Caucus Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers pronounced herself “very optimistic,” Majority Whip Steve Scalise found matters “very encouraging,” and Kevin McCarthy, the perpetually tongue-tied majority leader, declared: “We had a very good conference, a conference that from a microcosm, people on all sides.”
But this, er, microcosm of confidence could not withstand scrutiny.
NBC’s Kasie Hunt asked if Nunes should recuse himself and whether Ryan knows the source Nunes met at the White House.
“No, and no,” Ryan replied, without elaborating.
PBS’ Lisa Desjardins asked when Ryan expected to return to health care legislation.
“I’m not going to put a timeline on it,” he answered.
And that was about all the exposure Ryan’s aides were willing for him to risk. “Last question!” one of them shouted from the back of the room.
You can see why Ryan would be inclined to go to ground. A self-styled policy wonk and anti-poverty conservative in the model of Jack Kemp, Ryan put his name behind a bill that would have denied 24 million people health insurance and given tax cuts to the rich.
GOP lawmakers emerging from the caucus meeting didn’t quite share their leaders’ buoyancy. “This was more of a listening session, shall we say, than a progress session,” reported Greg Walden of Oregon, one of the authors of the failed bill.
Trent Franks of Arizona said the caucus faced a “tremendous conundrum,” stuck between what his colleagues want and what can get through the Senate.
And Florida’s Brian Mast put things in perspective with a funereal reference: “Another day over the dirt – that’s how you do it.”
Suddenly, there was a commotion in the Capitol basement. “Here comes Nunes!” And there he was: the Trump ally and member of Trump’s transition leadership who is using his chairmanship of the intelligence panel, which had enjoyed a reputation for bipartisanship, to shield the president. He has even tried to justify Trump’s groundless claim that President Barack Obama put a wiretap on Trump Tower.
Journalists pursued him through the Capitol’s bowels and then through the tunnel underneath Independence Avenue, pressing him on the canceled hearing and clandestine White House meeting. Nunes kept complaining:
“You guys always interview me.”
“How many questions are you going to ask?”
“There’s like 20 questions every day.”
“Are you just going to keep asking the same question?”
(Answer: Yes, until they get answers.)
And, while questions are being asked, here’s one the speaker might pose to himself: If he knew back then what his embrace of Trump would get him – a legislative shipwreck, a caucus in disarray and congressional oversight reduced to farce – would he have made the same choice?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.