Can you imagine Steve Bannon’s reaction upon seeing this story at Breitbart on the off-chance that he didn’t orchestrate the leak himself? The entire political establishment will assume that he ordered the hit, knowing how much antipathy Bannon has expressed towards Ryan in the past. In fact, this story from October, in which Bannon was accused of describing Ryan as “the enemy” and wanting him out as Speaker by this spring, appeared just two days after the Ryan conference call about the “Access Hollywood” tape that Breitbart’s publicizing today. Given how critical their site has been of the House bill and how dogged they’ve been in blaming Ryan for it (never mind that Trump has backed the bill to the hilt — so far), today’s piece will be read, fairly or not, as Bannon using his old platform to steer Trump away from the House bill. What better way to drive a wedge between him and Ryan than by reminding him of Ryan’s disloyalty last October? Feed Trump’s grudge by personalizing this and watch the policy disintegrate. To some extent, Rand Paul’s following the same strategy by accusing Ryan repeatedly of having misled the president.
But like I say: What if Bannon’s innocent? There have been at least two stories over the past month alleging that he’s at odds with Breitbart in some of its coverage of the White House. One came after Breitbart ripped Reince Priebus in a story that suggested he might lose his job; Bannon, knowing that he’d be fingered as the instigator, was allegedly “livid” about it and made that fact known to other media. Then came a piece last week at Business Insider claiming that a rift had developed between Bannon and Matt Boyle, who wrote today’s Ryan story, over the Priebus matter and Boyle’s disdain for the House health-care bill. How you read those two stories depends on how Machiavellian you think Bannon is. Maybe Breitbart really has asserted its independence from Bannon, despite the fact that this sort of negative coverage is apt to cause their former boss serious angst in the White House. Or … maybe the tales of Bannon at odds with Breitbart are just a ploy designed to give Bannon plausible deniability when the site attacks someone on his behalf. If he was “livid” about the Priebus story, surely he can’t be blamed for this new hit on Ryan, right?
“His comments are not anywhere in keeping with our party’s principles and values,” Ryan said. “There are basically two things that I want to make really clear, as for myself as your Speaker. I am not going to defend Donald Trump—not now, not in the future. As you probably heard, I disinvited him from my first congressional district GOP event this weekend—a thing I do every year. And I’m not going to be campaigning with him over the next 30 days.”
“Look, you guys know I have real concerns with our nominee,” Ryan continued. “I hope you appreciate that I’m doing what I think is best for you, the members, not what’s best for me. So, I want to do what’s best for our members, and I think this is the right thing to do. I’m going to focus my time on campaigning for House Republicans. I talked to a bunch of you over the last 72 hours and here is basically my takeaway. To everyone on this call, this is going to be a turbulent month. Many of you on this call are facing tough reelections. Some of you are not. But with respect to Donald Trump, I would encourage you to do what you think is best and do what you feel you need to do. Personally, you need to decide what’s best for you. And you all know what’s best for you where you are.”
All of the major points here were known within hours of the conference call happening last October 9th. The Examiner goes so far as to call the emergence of the audio today a “non-story.” I wouldn’t say that — the fact that Steve Bannon’s old site is pushing it in the midst of a blitz aimed at getting Trump to dump Ryan’s health-care bill is certainly a story. And it may be that, somehow, some way, Trump himself has overlooked what Ryan said on that call until now. Remember, as best as we can tell, the guy didn’t have a clue that members of his campaign staff were being surveilled by the Obama DOJ, a fact that’s been known for months, until someone stuck a recent Breitbart summary of it under his nose, leading to the now famous “Obama ‘tapping’ my phones” tweets. It’s possible that someone printed out Boyle’s story this morning for him and he’s only now learning that Ryan said he’d no longer defend him last year after the “Access Hollywood” tape, which might well infuriate him. Never mind that Ryan has been one of Trump’s most obsequious toadies in Congress ever since.
The punchline is, Ryan’s “disloyalty” to Trump in that conference call was perfectly understandable under the circumstances. The tape had appeared just a day before and the party was reeling from it, not knowing how bad the fallout would be. Some members of the GOP, including Trump’s new ambassador to Russia, called on him openly to quit the race, fearing he wouldn’t have time to recover and that their best option was to give Pence a full month at the top of the ticket. Ryan had to make a hard choice: Double down on Trump and risk losing the House in November by antagonizing a swell of anti-Trump voters or cut Trump loose and symbolically distance the congressional GOP from him in hopes of retaining the House majority. You can disagree with what he did but protecting the House was the safe play. And Trump, to the extent that he’s already aware of that conference call, has had the good sense since then not to hold it against him, knowing that Ryan was doing what he thought was needed to protect the party. Ryan simply underestimated voters’ tolerance for a president who said what Trump said on the tape. And why wouldn’t he? If Obama had been caught saying something like that in 2008, conservatives would still be having conniptions over it.