“The speaker is not resigning,” Paul Ryan’s spokesperson AshLee Strong sent Vox in a succinct email in late March. It was not the first time she’s had to field the question; rather, it was just the latest development in a story that’s been percolating in the halls of Congress for months.
Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) let a rumor slip to a local reporter recently that the House speaker was on his way out. His claim was more specific than some of the gossip that’s been floating around for months; Amodei claimed Ryan would resign in 30 to 60 days and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) would take his place.
Amodei’s version of events is just some of the speculation that has been spinning around ever since Politico’s Tim Alberta reported that in interviews with “three dozen people who know the speaker — fellow lawmakers, congressional and administration aides, conservative intellectuals and Republican lobbyists — not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018.” Ryan and his office have actively denied the reports.
But on Capitol Hill, the likelihood of Ryan’s departure is no longer a question of will it happen but a matter of when and how. Will Ryan run for reelection first? Probably. Will he push for one more signature achievement, like entitlement reform, before he leaves? That seems less likely.
Underlying the chatter among Republicans is an understanding that the speakership has always been a thankless job, and has become all the more fraught under the Trump presidency. When Ryan took over the post, his ascendency was meant to usher in a new era in GOP politics, unified behind Obamacare repeal, tax cuts, and dismantling the welfare state. Instead, Ryan has placated a president who has no interest in his agenda, and who in many cases — like on immigration, trade, and entitlement reform — breaks with the party altogether.
Ryan’s conservatism is no longer seen as a uniting force in a fractured Republican House. Instead, Ryan has become an avatar for the Republican civil war.
Washington thinks Paul Ryan is on his way out
The rumors began with fervor in December, around the time tax reform was wrapping up. Politico’s Alberta had taken the temperature of Ryan’s inner Washington circle and everyone thought he was on his way out:
In the months following Trump’s victory, he began contemplating the scenarios of his departure. More recently, over closely held conversations with his kitchen cabinet, Ryan’s preference has become clear: He would like to serve through Election Day 2018 and retire ahead of the next Congress. This would give Ryan a final legislative year to chase his second white whale, entitlement reform, while using his unrivaled fundraising prowess to help protect the House majority — all with the benefit of averting an ugly internecine power struggle during election season.
It’s an account of a beleaguered speaker. Even though Ryan is one of the most powerful people in the country, his friends said “he feels like he’s running a daycare center” in Washington, per Politico. Leaving the speakership would allow him to live in Wisconsin with his actual school-age children.
Ryan has tried to quiet rumors. He called Alberta’s story “rank speculation” and said he’s not “going anywhere any time soon.”
“It’s a thought that never entered my mind, let alone discussed it with anybody,” Ryan said on CBS This Morning. “So I really see this as sort rank speculation among the DC Beltway press, speculating these things. I think it was fairly irresponsible speculation. It’s faulty speculation.”
That “speculation,” however, has become casual conversation among lawmakers, according to one Republican congressional aide — likely what led to Amodei’s public recounting of the behind-the-scenes Capitol Hill chitchat. Ryan hasn’t commented on if he would run for speaker again in 2019, should he stay and Republicans keep the House.
For Ryan’s colleagues, it’s easy to see why. At the start of Trump’s presidency, congressional Republicans, with control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, set forward an ambitious agenda. They would repeal and replace Obamacare in mere months, pass a major budget deal, and enact massive tax cuts.
Instead, after months of highly visible party infighting, Obamacare repeal failed epically. Republicans deeply underestimated the time they’d spend excusing Trump’s tweets and White House scandals. They managed to pass tax cuts, but lawmakers are already worried the bill won’t be popular enough in November to help them win elections. Meanwhile, Trump, who doesn’t seem interested in talking taxes much, is stuck on the one policy issue that will only deepen party divides: immigration.
Trump keeps pushing Ryan’s biggest vulnerability front and center
If it were up to Ryan, Republicans would steer clear of immigration. But Trump is making it impossible to ignore.
Immigration anxiety played a large role in getting Trump elected, from “build the wall” chants and the “Muslim ban” to “murderers” and “bad hombres” jumping over the border — and Trump is eager to stick to it. After announcing his administration would sunset the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Trump has consistently blamed Democrats for letting the program go into legal limbo.
Lawmakers have seemingly thrown up their hands in frustration over the future of 690,000 young unauthorized immigrants currently protected from deportation under DACA — Ryan especially.
“I don’t think the Republican leadership wanted to be here when it comes to DACA,” Yuval Levin, the conservative founding editor of National Affairs who is in Ryan’s brain trust, said. “They [would] much rather avoid immigration — it divides the party.”
Immigration is among Ryan’s biggest political vulnerabilities in the Trump era of Republican politics. His own views, often said to have been shaped by his mentor Jack Kemp — the pro-immigration New York Republican whom Ryan worked for early in his career and with whom he remained close until Kemp’s death in 2009 — are in stark contrast to the hardliner views espoused by the White House.
In July 2016, Ryan’s primary challenger Paul Nehlen — who has emerged as a political avatar for alt-right internet trolls and had the support of some in Trump’s orbit — showed up at Ryan’s Janesville, Wisconsin, home with a group of four mothers who had ”lost children at the hands of illegal immigrants.” Nehlen is running again this year, and his campaign has drummed up the kind of attacks against Ryan that have long been found on the pages of Breitbart News, the far-right media outlet run by Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon.
Just read through a couple of articles penned by White House adviser and former Breitbart writer Julia Hahn and it becomes clear that to the movement behind Trump’s presidential victory, Ryan is no different from a “mass amnesty” Democrat. From “Speaker Paul Ryan goes silent as Refugee program claims victims at Ohio,” which Hahn wrote to censure Ryan for not publicly questioning the immigration system after a Somali refugee went on a stabbing spree on Ohio State University’s campus, to “GOP Rep: Paul Ryan’s immigration policy not ‘in best interest of America,’” which Hahn published just prior to House leadership elections, Ryan has long been dogged for having an “expansionist immigration agenda.”
Of course, Ryan’s actual record on the issue is much less straightforward. He has supported hardline policies, voting in favor of fellow Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s 2005 bill cracking down on illegal immigration. He’s voted for border fencing and as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee stood for the party’s “self-deportation” proposal, which Democrats found to be laughable.
But he’s also been dovish at times. He supported an early version of a comprehensive immigration push from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) that would have created a path to citizenship for nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants. And in 2013, he stood with Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), among the most progressive immigration activists in the House, on a stage in Chicago to support a pathway to citizenship.
“He is an outlier,” Levin said of Ryan’s personal views, which are more moderate than those of the immigration hawks dominating the current immigration conversation. But he’s shown a willingness to give hardliners airtime on the issue.
Ask Gutiérrez where he places Ryan’s personal position on immigration today and he says he can’t.
“I can tell you what they were [in] 2013; we were together in April in Chicago,” Gutiérrez told me of Ryan. “I don’t know what they are today.”
Ryan defends Trump. Trumpkins aren’t as keen to defend Ryan.
The prospect of Ryan’s downfall is closely tied to his ascension — one that came on the heels of an archconservative revolt.
His predecessor, John Boehner, who also led a splintered Republican caucus, angered House conservatives by seeking votes across the aisle to pass major pieces of legislation — a move that ultimately led to his ouster.
It’s a history conservatives make sure hangs heavy over Ryan’s tenure in leadership.
“I can say it is the defining moment for this speaker,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus and one of Trump’s confidants, said of Ryan’s role in Congress’s immigration debate at a Heritage Foundation forum early this year. “If he gets it wrong, it will have consequences for him, but it will also have consequences for the rest of the Republican Party.”
In 2015, it was Meadows who moved to oust Boehner from his seat — what became a catalyst to Boehner’s retirement and Ryan’s political rise. Now Meadows chairs a cohort of roughly 40 men who make up the House’s most conservative faction and Trump’s most ardent supporters. The Freedom Caucus wields enough votes to stop any Republican-led legislation in its tracks, and Meadows has a direct line to the president if things don’t go his way, leverage points he’s happy to use.
Ryan has tried to keep the peace within his party — to varying degrees of success. Before taking the speakership, he promised the conference’s most conservative members, who were most wary of his appointment, that he would not move on immigration without the support of the majority of the caucus, also known as the Hastert Rule. Then he added another condition: He said he also wouldn’t bring up a vote on a bill that didn’t have Trump’s support.
Ryan has made apparent efforts to align with Trump. During the 2016 campaign season he would disavow Trump’s racist remarks, but he has now tempered his condemnations. When Trump called a number of African nations “shitholes,” Ryan said it was an “unfortunate” and “unhelpful” comment. As for Trump’s apparent attempts to gain influence over FBI Director James Comey, Ryan said Trump was “just new at this.” He’s even given the president credit where credit was not due on health care and tax reform policy.
But Trump’s supporters inside and outside Congress aren’t as willing to return the support. In September 2017, reports cropped up of conservative efforts to oust Ryan. Axios reported that Meadows had met with former White House adviser and Breitbart executive Steve Bannon to float alternatives for Republican leadership. The Washington Post said the Freedom Caucus was “privately plotting” ways to force Ryan to adopt their hardline agenda.
And while Ryan has made it clear that his role on immigration is to facilitate rather than advance policy, if you ask conservatives like Meadows — whose group of hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus have their hands on the Goodlatte bill, which does not include a path to citizenship and imposes stricter immigration checks — Ryan has had too light a touch. House leadership says it is currently whipping votes for the proposal. Still, without the votes to pass even with only Republican support, conservatives say Ryan is trying to slow-walk conservative legislation.
And after Ryan and Senate leadership pushed through a massive $1.3 trillion spending package that didn’t reflect any conservative policy priorities, from immigration to pro-life language, those same conservatives, with Trump on their side, were more than willing to throw Ryan under the bus.
Ryan’s impossible gamble is getting more impossible
The reality in today’s Congress is that many Republicans have had to abandon many of their convictions to align with Trump’s agenda.
Most Republicans have long subscribed to the idea that legal immigration is good. They supported free trade. They don’t see the merit in a 50-foot-high concrete border wall. And when it comes to giving DREAMers a path to citizenship, there’s more division than consensus.
“There were others like [Ryan], like Pence, who were much more moderate on these issues when they were members of the House,” Gutiérrez said. “Remember [former South Carolina Rep. Mick] Mulvaney? Look him up. He was talking in Spanish to his constituents. Because he knows there’s a need. Now, I’m not saying he was pro-immigration, but he said we need to do something about this and stop vilifying Latinos because the Republican Party is going to become smaller.”
So far, Ryan has navigated these ideological gaps by pushing through what he thinks Republicans can get away with. The strategy is becoming more tenuous.
Trump threatened to shut down the government over Republican leaders’ latest policy push: the spending bill, which was largely considered to be the last major policy fight of 2018.
Now the president is eager to pick at the wounds of a failed congressional debate over immigration.
It’s created an impossible gamble for Ryan, whose conference is facing a midterm election cycle where Democrats are determined to win back the majority in the House. The name of the game for Republicans in 2018 is unity. But Trump doesn’t seem interested in that.
It explains why so many think Paul Ryan is ready to quit the game.