Is Paul Ryan about to distance himself from Trump?

Ryan is rumoured to be weighing his future, perhaps with a future presidential bid in mind

Taking a hike? Speculation is rife that House speaker Paul Ryan is preparing to step down from the post. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo /EPA

Taking a hike? Speculation is rife that House speaker Paul Ryan is preparing to step down from the post. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo /EPA

 

Even by the usual standards of Donald Trump’s presidency, it was a busy week in Washington as the political world prepared for next week’s Christmas recess.

The shock election result in Alabama, increasing concerns about John McCain’s health and a last-minute rush to get a tax bill on the president’s desk before the end of the year were top of Republicans’ agenda.

But the GOP may soon have something else to worry about.

On Thursday Politico and the Huffington Post reported that Paul Ryan may be weighing his future as speaker of the House of Representatives. Asked about it at a press conference, the Wisconsin congressman denied the reports.

But fuel was added to the fire when the White House confirmed an hour later that President Donald Trump had spoken to Ryan about the reports and told him that if the news was true he was “very unhappy”.

Despite Ryan’s denial, the rumour mill is in full swing.

For many reasons, a Ryan departure would not be unexpected. The 47-year-old has always been uncomfortable in a position that many see as a thankless job. His predecessor, John Boehner, was forced out in 2015 after losing the support of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

Ryan, a member of Congress since 1999, emerged as the unlikely replacement after a fractious Republican Party struggled to find a candidate who all could endorse.

Since then he has kept the conservative caucus in check, using the role to advance his policy objectives, such as tax reform.

Any perils to his leadership have come not from the right flank of the party, as was the case for his predecessor, but from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump challenges

While the ascension of a Republican president to the White House should have been a blessing to a Republican House speaker, particularly after years of acrimony with Barack Obama, the election of Trump has brought its own challenges.

Ryan was late to endorse Trump as the Republican candidate, only formally doing so last June. During the campaign he disagreed with the man who was to become president on several issues, such as the candidate Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US.

Since Trump’s election, Ryan has had to balance his stewardship of the Republican Party with the obligation to defend the president at times, often looking uncomfortable and irresolute in press conferences as he has been forced to take questions about the president’s latest tweet or presidential order.

While Ryan’s desire to spend more time with his wife and children in Wisconsin may be one reason for him consider stepping down after the 2018 elections (as well as the prospect of a Democratic victory), he may also hold his own presidential ambitions.

In this sense dissociating himself from Trump might be a wise move ahead of any future presidential run. Ryan’s dilemma reflects a conundrum facing many Republicans in Congress – how far does one go to support Donald Trump, a president with historically low ratings nationally?

This week’s Alabama election may have provided an early resolution to the internal battles of the Republican Party over its future direction. One of the lessons from Roy Moore’s defeat may be that firebrand, anti-establishment candidates such as Moore, and to an extent Trump himself, don’t have the necessary appeal.

Emboldened

As members of Congress prepare to defend their seats in next November’s midterm elections, the Alabama result may embolden them to step away from a president who could be damaging their own political brand.

Ryan’s progress on the Republican tax bill – a policy priority of his since he chaired the House ways and means committee – may be another reason why he might want to step down and leave on a positive note, having achieved a major legislative win.

Should Ryan quit his post after next year’s midterm elections, Ireland would lose a senior Irish-American politician in the Republican establishment. Ryan is a proud Irish-American, whose ancestors hail from Kilkenny. As he told Simon Carswell in an interview in 2016, the hurley he keeps in his office is a handy tool when he wants to keep an unruly party in check – “Whenever I pull that stick out, people know that they better shape up,” he joked.

For Irish diplomats and Government Ministers visiting from Dublin, Ryan is an important contact who helps to keep Irish issues on the agenda. It seems that his Irish loyalty has its limits, however – last month he told the House how Johnson Controls, a company with roots in Wisconsin since the 1880s was now based in Ireland, as he justified a cut in the corporate tax rate. The apparently irrepressible love for Ireland stretches only so far.

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