House Speaker Paul Ryan's extraordinary statement Thursday that he's "just not ready" to support Donald Trump highlights a challenge for the real-estate developer and TV personality on the week that he unexpectedly eliminated his rivals and cemented his status as presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Ryan joined a growing list of Republican elites who have resisted supporting their new standard-bearer and made a variety of vague demands of him, such as proving he's committed to conservatism and is White House material, before offering their support. Republicans have refrained from handing down straightforward ultimatums, which suggests many will ultimately get behind him. But the dissent from within is highly unusual for a major-party candidate who has locked up the nomination and is shifting into general-election mode.
"I hope to and I want to" support Trump, Ryan said on CNN. But he said the billionaire "needs to do more to unify this party" by demonstrating to conservatives that he "shares our values" and "bears our standards."
Though Ryan's expressed concerns about Trump's ideological moorings, he didn't specify policy changes that Trump should make in order to earn his support. In December, he took the unusual step of criticizing Trump's proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. as unrepresentative of conservatism. Indeed, the tension won't be easy to resolve as Ryan differs from Trump on his core issues of mass deportation, cutting immigration, and rejecting free trade deals.
"I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan's agenda," Trump responded in a statement Thursday. "Perhaps in the future we can work together and come to an agreement about what is best for the American people. They have been treated so badly for so long that it is about time for politicians to put them first!"
Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said it was highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a major party leader not to support his presumptive nominee.
"As best I can tell, this has not happened before," Ornstein said in an e-mail. "Of course, the caveat—maybe later—may be a clever way to have it both ways, end up supporting your party's nominee after indicating your misgivings. But even so, it is extraordinary."
Trump spokeswoman Elizabeth Emken downplayed the tension on CNN, arguing that it's "going to take more than 24 hours" to calm "frayed nerves" from the primary race. Some prominent Republicans—ranging from former rival Rick Perry to mega-donor Sheldon Adelson—have endorsed Trump, but others remain wary.
U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican, said she could see herself supporting Trump but he's "going to have to stop with gratuitous personal insults." U.S. Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said Trump has "a great deal of work to do to convince many Americans, myself included, that he is prepared and able to lead this great nation."
The varying advice creates a predicament for Trump. His idiosyncratic, fiery rhetoric has channeled the grievances of many Americans—primarily older, white conservatives. Adjusting his tenor and message risks undercutting his strong support among that base. But while his message appeals to enough of the GOP to make him its nominee, his rhetoric has alienated key constituencies whose ranks are growing in a general electorate, such as Hispanics, blacks, and unmarried women.
Republicans say they're watching to see whether he's amenable to making concessions to reassure would-be supporters, how he targets general-election voters, and how he balances the competing demands.
"It's an evolving process. He's not a natural politician," said Republican strategist and lobbyist John Feehery, who plans to support Trump as the nominee. "So he either learns or he doesn't."
Feehery offered Trump some advice: Stop proposing the Muslim ban, tweeting about taco salads on Cinco de Mayo, and linking Ted Cruz's father to John F. Kennedy's killer. "He needs to tighten up his ship."
At a rally in West Virginia on Thursday, Trump didn't show much of a desire to make nice with his foes in the GOP, ignoring Ryan's remarks and mocking the anti-Trump movement from within. "You know why it's Never Trump?" he said. "Because I'm going to stop the gravy train for all of these consultants."
—With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs in Washington and Kevin Cirilli in West Virginia.