Ryan’s Ability to Work With a President Trump Faces Test

Is Trump Capitalizing on the FBI’s Rebuke of Clinton?
  • Speaker sees nominee as ‘willing partner’ in House agenda
  • But Trump’s outsider persona is already complicating strategy

Speaker Paul Ryan plays host Thursday to Donald Trump, who he says as president could become a willing partner in advancing House Republicans’ congressional policies.

Yet Ryan’s faith about his ability to work with Trump may be overly optimistic, after weeks of avoiding, chiding and sometimes ignoring the man poised to be acclaimed his party’s nominee.

"Let me put it to you this way: People are who they are," said Republican Representative Reid Ribble, who is no Trump fan. "And these are very, very different people."

Trump is meeting with Ryan and House Republicans near the Capitol in the morning, and then later with Senate Republicans. Representative John Mica of Florida said that Trump received a "very warm reception." The real estate mogul was introduced by Ryan and commentator Larry Kudlow.

It’s Trump’s first sit-down with the full Republican conference, but it’s unclear how many will actually attend, with a number of lawmakers already saying they will miss it. The nominee is hoping to unify the party ahead of its convention in Cleveland and working to choose a running mate from a shrinking field of experienced Republicans willing to join the ticket.

"I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime," said Ribble, who like Ryan is from Wisconsin. "The speaker’s in a tough spot."

This week alone, Ryan has been prompted to publicly respond to Trump’s praise for Saddam Hussein by clarifying the Iraqi strongman was "evil," and also said the New York billionaire’s campaign must "clean up" its social media operation on the heels of a tweet with an apparently anti-Semitic image.

Little Precedent

There’s little precedent in U.S. history for how a House speaker would work with a president of the same party when that president is a complete outsider -- from the party and politics in general. If Trump wins the White House, Ryan and Republicans in Congress will be paired with a strong-willed businessman who has shown little interest in toning down his inflammatory rhetoric and has already rejected many policy proposals important to party members.

Trump opposes free-trade deals, wants to build a wall at the southern U.S. border to keep out undocumented immigrants, and may be open to more spending on infrastructure. Ryan calls for free trade, an immigration overhaul, and limited government with steep spending cuts.

Trump and Ryan differ in personal style as well. Where Trump is brash, Ryan is measured, though he didn’t hesitate to call Trump out for saying that the federal judge in a lawsuit against Trump University was biased because of his Mexican heritage. Ryan also revels in the policy details that the billionaire skates past.

"There will be exasperation," conceded former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican and now a lobbyist in Washington. But he said from his own experience, "You don’t just curse the darkness. Do something about it!"

‘Strong Personality’

Lott and some of Trump’s supporters in Congress say they believe the pair will be able to work out their differences if the real-estate billionaire wins the White House.

"Donald’s a strong personality and Ryan’s is a strong personality. They’ll have to learn -- whatever differences they have -- to not focus on those and do what’s best for the American people," said Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, one of the first congressional Trump supporters.

"As long as we can keep it at a 30,000-foot level and not get bogged down too much on details, there will be enough agreement," said Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, a member of the House Republican leadership team who backs Trump.

In other words, if Trump simply outsources policy work to Congress, it could go smoothly. But presidents are rarely content to let lawmakers set their agenda.

Ryan rolled out his own House Republican agenda for next year, which contained no mention of Trump’s more controversial proposals -- a border wall or a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. -- and defended free trade and the need for a strong NATO alliance, a body Trump has termed obsolete.

Ryan has acknowledged that Trump "clearly says and does things I don’t agree with, and I’ve had to speak up from time to time when that has occurred, and I’ll continue to do that if it’s necessary. I hope it’s not.” 

Carter and O’Neill

The closest modern comparison of an outsider president and a speaker of the same political party may be the fractious relationship during the late 1970s between two fellow Democrats, President Jimmy Carter of Georgia and House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts.

“Carter was the first president in our history to run as a governor who had no prior Washington experience,” said John Fortier, director of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project. “And as an outsider, Congress and O’Neill viewed him as unknowledgeable about or disrespectful toward Congress."

John Aloysius Farrell, a journalist and biographer of O’Neill, said Democrats of Carter’s ilk were skeptical about taxes and big government, emphasized post-Watergate ethics, and were more apt to use television rather than old-time party machines to get elected.

Carter and O’Neill also came from very different places. Offered grits at a White House breakfast, O’Neill said, "I’ll try one," according to Farrell.

Deep Split

Carter’s team also didn’t have an appreciation for how the system worked in Washington, Farrell said.

This kind of split could happen again, said Farrell, "if wild and woolly Trumpism runs up against the traditional, pro-trade, internationalist Republican Party agenda.”

While Carter certainly wasn’t as big a personality as Trump, his aides "saw themselves as pretty smart guys, who had just pulled off a political miracle and didn’t need to listen to this white-haired, overweight cigar-smoking relic," Farrell said, referring to O’Neill.

‘Peas in a Pod’

Lott -- whose former chief of staff, David Hoppe, now holds the same job for Ryan -- said Trump would need to turn to the speaker for help, and vice versa. He said that even though he and President Bill Clinton belonged to different parties, in many ways they had more in common than Ryan and Trump.

"We were kind of two peas in a pod, really. Southern boys from broken families, age-wise, pretty close," said Lott. "So, he could never pull anything on me, nor me on him. And plus, he had a sense of humor."

Farrell suggested that Trump might get along with Ryan, especially in the beginning, to score some wins and demonstrate that he is effective. Trump may govern like President Ronald Reagan did, he said, by mostly laying off divisive social issues and going for what is dear to his heart.

If not, Carter’s fate could provide a hint of what is to come. The split between O’Neill and Carter became a gulf when then-Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged the incumbent president in the 1980 primaries. Kennedy lost to Carter, and then Carter lost to Reagan in November.

"The dynamics won’t be the same, but if Trump stumbles, the more establishment Republican bloc could look to challenge the populist Trump in 2020 -- and that could put Ryan on the spot, as with Tip in 1980," said Farrell.

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