Paul Ryan will distance himself from the president. He’ll occasionally offer some polite and always constructive criticism of Trump’s most egregious tweets and statements. But the Republican House speaker will not do battle with a man who, as of about a year and a half ago, he wanted to see anywhere but the Oval Office.
That was the main, not-particularly-surprising takeaway from Ryan’s CNN town hall on Monday night, an event that Trump upstaged with his last-minute decision to deliver an address to the nation on Afghanistan. Held in the speaker’s Wisconsin congressional district, the town hall was ostensibly an opportunity for Ryan to talk up tax reform and remind constituents and the nation at large that House Republicans—if not their counterparts in the Senate—have been more productive this year than the media has given them credit for.
But the event was also the first time in a national setting that Ryan would take questions about the violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s widely-criticized, oscillating response. Before Monday night, the speaker had issued multiple statements about Charlottesville, each dutifully denouncing “hate,” “bigotry,” and “white supremacy.” They were all exemplars of the art of implied criticism. Republican lawmakers and party elders had been increasingly calling out Trump for blaming “many sides” in Charlottesville and saying that the white-supremacist demonstrators included some “very fine people.” Mitt Romney demanded that the president apologize. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said Trump had yet to demonstrate the “stability” or “competence” the presidency required. Ryan, meanwhile, wouldn’t mention the president’s name.