Donald Trump pointedly refused to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain in their upcoming primary battles on Tuesday, responding to criticism from both of his attacks on Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan. It is only the latest in a long, long series of indignities the two politicians have to endure, through no small fault of their own, over the course of this bizarre election.
In an interview with the Washington Post's Philip Rucker, Trump went out of his way to praise Paul Nehlen, who's running a long-shot bid against Ryan in Wisconsin’s primary next Tuesday. Nehlen is a major Trump backer who has been attacking Ryan’s past hesitance about Trump. After Nehlen defended Trump’s attacks on the Khans — including from Ryan’s criticism — Trump tweeted out a note of appreciation:
Thanks to @pnehlen for your kind words, very much appreciated.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2016
It gets better. This is how Trump chose to explain his non-endorsement of Ryan to the Post:
I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.
Here’s a verbatim quote of Paul Ryan in May, explaining why he still hadn’t endorsed Trump, even though Trump was the presumptive nominee:
I'm just not ready to do that at this point. I'm not there right now.
Trump not only remembered the way Ryan slighted him in May but remembered nearly the exact phrasing and spat it back at Ryan in a brutally effective bit of rhetorical jiujitsu.
How about McCain, who’s refused to un-endorse Trump or endorse Hillary Clinton despite issuing a very strong statement condemning Trump’s treatment of the Khan family, and who faces a primary challenge at the end of August from Kelli Ward, a former state senator and Trump booster similar to Nehlen? "I haven’t endorsed John McCain," Trump says, elaborating:
I’ve never been there with John McCain because I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets. He has not done a good job for the vets and I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets. So I’ve always had a difficult time with John for that reason, because our vets are not being treated properly. They’re not being treated fairly.
To be clear, Donald Trump thinks that John McCain, who spent 23 years in the Navy and more than 5 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and has been a leading advocate on veterans' issues in the Senate for years, does not have veterans’ interests at heart the way Donald Trump — who avoided serving in Vietnam due to college deferments and "bad feet," and who failed to honor a promise to donate to veterans’ groups until the media forced his hand — does.
That is the argument he’s making. It’s not that surprising coming from someone who mocked McCain for having been captured, but the chutzpah required to articulate it is nonetheless impressive.
At this point Trump appears to be running an experiment on just how much disrespect high-ranking politicians are willing to endure for the sake of party unity. It’s a rather impressive testament to the depth of polarization and growth in partisan loyalty that none of Trump’s actions up to this point have prompted McCain or Ryan to un-endorse him, but this could provide an opening:
This could be the exit ramp McCain and Ryan are looking for.— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) August 2, 2016
Un-endorsing would be a tad awkward — "I could support Trump when he was attacking the families of fallen heroes, but not after he personally slighted me" — but would nonetheless have some internal logic. There’s an assumption of reciprocity with endorsements; if Trump isn’t willing to do what he can for senior members of the congressional party, maybe he shouldn’t expect their support in turn.
Of course, the other way Trump could open up the path for an un-endorsement would be if his comments help Nehlen or Ward win. A lame-duck Ryan or lame-duck McCain wouldn’t have any particular reason to try to keep things together for the party’s sake.