WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday told GOP House members he would not campaign for presidential nominee Donald Trump or defend him — a move that drew an immediate rebuke from Trump.
The unprecedented announcement by the Republicans’ highest elected official that he would focus his efforts on preserving the GOP House majority came in an 11 a.m. conference call with congressional Republicans.
Ryan’s remarks came as party leaders struggled to respond to Trump’s lewd sexual remarks captured in a 2005 video made public on Friday. Trump was heard on the video talking about kissing and groping women without their consent.
The speaker’s decision to distance himself from his party’s standard-bearer just 29 days before the presidential election drew criticism from a number of Trump supporters on the call who accused Ryan of conceding the election to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump also lashed out at Ryan, the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential candidate in a Twitter posting. Trump said the speaker, “should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee.”
Although his press secretary denied that the speaker was conceding the race, Ryan told GOP House members that he won’t defend Trump now or in the future, according to The Associated Press.
“The speaker is going to spend the next month focused entirely on protecting our congressional majorities,” Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a statement after Ryan’s call.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a Trump backer who was on the conference call, said Ryan said “he was not withdrawing his endorsement of Donald Trump and he would be campaigning with House candidates to make sure we have a majority.”
Ryan’s disclosure came a day after Trump appeared to have steadied his campaign in the town hall debate with Clinton Sunday night at Washington University — despite several Republican defections from his campaign on Saturday.
Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, who on Saturday stopped campaigning and rebuked Trump for the vulgar remarks, reaffirmed his support on Monday morning news shows. Pence praised Trump’s debate performance and said he was “proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.”
But Clinton campaign officials said Ryan’s remarks coupled with the recent string of Trump endorsement defections gave the appearance of a “civil war” among GOP leaders
“It does seem like somewhat of a civil war is breaking out in the Republican Party,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s director of communications.
Palmieri, who spoke to reporters aboard Clinton’s campaign en route to Michigan Monday, said it was “too late” for Republicans to stop Trump’s candidacy.
“There was a time where they could stop Donald Trump, there was a time where they could have spoken out against him, and that time was this summer, and obviously, it’s too late now,” Palmieri said.
Also Monday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus held an afternoon conference call with RNC members assuring them that the party’s national headquarters continues to have “a great relationship with the Trump campaign.”
“I want to make it very clear that the RNC is in full coordination with the Trump campaign and we have a great relationship with them,” Mr. Priebus said on the call. “Nothing has changed with regard to our relationship.”
King, who endorsed Trump in May, said he understood Ryan has his own priorities.
“Paul has to do what he has to do. In my own case, I’m still supporting Trump,” King said. “Paul is looking at 247 seats [held by Republicans]. I’m looking at one.”
King said it was up to Republicans who backed away from Trump to figure out what to do now after “overreacting” to the video without realizing they need Trump supporters to win.
“I don’t think they should have done it. Nothing came out new over the weekend, shameful as it was,” King said. “Everyone knew that Donald kind of a wild lifestyle.”
With Emily Ngo