Makes no sense strategically but as a form of pure, juvenile “I know you are but what am I” reprisal, I guess there’s a logic to it.
Ryan, remember, used almost this exact phrase in early May in explaining after the Indiana primary why he wasn’t prepared yet to endorse Trump. Trump clearly remembered and is taunting him now — even though Ryan did endorse him a few weeks later, made no trouble for him in Cleveland, and has remained a supporter despite #NeverTrumpers screeching at him daily that he’s a coward and a sell-out for not repudiating Trump. This is his reward for loyalty. He deserves it.
With Ryan’s Wisconsin primary scheduled for next Tuesday, Trump praised the House speaker’s underdog opponent, Paul Nehlen, for running “a very good campaign.” Trump said that Ryan has sought his endorsement, but that as of now he is only “giving it very serious consideration.”
“I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country,” Trump said. “We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.”…
“[Ryan’s] opponent is a big fan of what I’m saying — big fan,” Trump said. “His opponent, who’s running a very good campaign, obviously, I’ve heard — his opponent sent me a very scholarly and well thought out letter yesterday and all I did was say thank you very much for your very nice letter. You saw my statement.”
Trump added, “I’m giving very serious consideration to that whole situation, to Ryan, to Paul.”
He’s not willing to endorse McCain either because “he should have done a much better job for the vets” and he’s also pretty excited that he’s “beating [Kelly Ayotte] in the polls by a lot,” which is a weird, weird thing to say about a politician from your own party who’s running down-ballot from you. So: What’s the point here? What is Trump aiming to achieve by withholding his support? If he’s willing to go all-in and support Paul Nehlen’s primary challenge to Ryan in WI-01 and if Nehlen succeeds, against all odds, in knocking Ryan off, it would be a historic power play over control of the party and would terrorize other congressional Republicans whose support of Trump has been less than enthusiastic. Problem is, the primary is only a week away and Trump probably won’t go all-in for Nehlen, for the simple reason that Ryan’s likely to win no matter what Trump does. As Tim Alberta notes, Ryan’s favorable rating among Wisconsin Republicans is 76/14 and Trump himself was crushed there in the primary by Ted Cruz. Trying to take Ryan out and failing would backfire on Trump in all sorts of ways — it would enrage Ryan’s caucus; it would shatter any perception of party unity; it would give Ryan (and other Republicans) an excuse to withdraw their endorsements of Trump on the theory that disloyalty deserves disloyalty in kind; and it would reveal Trump as a man of weak influence within his own party in having struck at the king of the House and failed. Trump endorsed Renee Ellmers before her primary in North Carolina a few months ago, remember, and Ellmers was wiped out.
All of which may explain why Trump is willing to withhold his endorsement of Ryan, say a few kind words about Nehlen, but do nothing else. If Ryan romps now, Trump can claim that he wasn’t invested in the race, and if, against all odds, Ryan ends up being upset, Trump can take credit. But if Ryan wins, there are going to be hard feelings, and not just within Ryan’s own camp. This makes it easier for other Republicans to throw Trump overboard, which he should be eager to avoid at a moment when he’s in trouble over the Khan dust-up and trying not to give Trump-skeptics on the right another reason to give up on him entirely. Says Noah Rothman:
Think this through. Trump says a mean thing about Ryan and McCain and they withdraw endorsements over it. Who do conservatives resent more?
— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) August 2, 2016
That’s another major strategic error here. If Ryan and McCain are destined to rescind their endorsements of Trump (which is doubtful in Ryan’s case, less doubtful in McCain’s), it’s exceedingly stupid to give them an excuse to do so by pointedly refusing to endorse them first. He should have killed them with kindness; then, if they un-endorsed anyway, they’d be the lousy backstabbers, not him. Instead he seems to be approaching this from the standpoint of “you can’t fire me, I quit,” i.e. he anticipates that they’re going to un-endorse at some point and his pride can’t bear the thought of a public rejection like that. So he’s rejecting them first — even though, in effect, this will now become a “get out of jail free” card for both of them if they cut Trump loose later.
By the way, although it’s unlikely that Trump will sink a pol as popular as Ryan in his backyard, it’s not unimaginable that his non-endorsement will sink McCain. Trump won Arizona this spring and Maverick’s stuck in a tough Senate primary with a tough general election opponent getting ready down the line. The primary is still three weeks away too, giving Trump plenty of time to turn up the heat on McCain if he wants to. It could be that enough Trump fans in Arizona will defect to McCain’s primary opponent, Kelli Ward, to defeat him and that Ward, lacking the advantage of incumbency, will lose the seat in November. Trump’s not just messing with ol’ Mav here, he’s messing with the GOP’s odds of holding the Senate. One Democrat on Twitter quipped, “Trump treats Putin with more respect than John McCain.” Except it’s not really a joke. Read his statements about McCain, dating back to the POW “joke” last summer, side by side with what he’s said about Putin and you’ll see that that’s objectively correct. This is where we are with Election Day 2016 three months away.
Oh, by the way: According to at least one recent poll of New Hampshire, Trump’s not “beating” Kelly Ayotte there. On the contrary. Exit question via a Roll Call reporter: “How long before the ‘Mike Pence Endorses Paul Ryan’ email hits the Inboxes?” That is Team Trump’s preferred way to clean up his messes.
Update: This is the bet, in a nutshell. And it’s a dumb bet.
This is, as @joshtpm puts it classic dominance politics. Trump sets up scenario where Ryan humiliates himself by staying. Knows he will.
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) August 2, 2016
If Ryan continues to eat sh*t for Trump after this, he’ll be humiliated — although he’s been pretty well humiliated already and it hasn’t helped Trump in any way. If he doesn’t continue to eat sh*t and decides to un-endorse, that’ll be taken as a signal across the GOP that it’s okay to abandon on the nominee this year. No upside, plenty of downside. But “dominance.”
Update: There’s that, too:
For those keeping track, this is 5th consecutive day post-DNC that GOP presidential nominee has fought everyone but the Democratic nominee.
— Robert A George (@RobGeorge) August 2, 2016
Update: Occam’s Razor: Maybe Trump is lashing out at Republicans because they won’t back him up in his latest pointless fight.
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) August 2, 2016
Good question from Benjy Sarlin: Why wouldn’t Ryan want the endorsement of a man he’s endorsed for the most powerful job on Earth?