ST. LOUIS — House Speaker Paul Ryan has discussed withdrawing his endorsement of Donald Trump, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions within his inner circle.
Ryan (R-Wis.) has publicly and privately grown dismayed by the tone and tenor of Trump's campaign, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of his thinking. And Ryan has reviewed with close advisers whether to abandon the GOP nominee. The discussions occurred after the bombshell video Friday of Trump talking in predatory terms about his sexual exploits, but before the second presidential debate Sunday night.
Ryan is gathering House Republicans on a conference call Monday morning at 11 a.m..
No decision has been made. But that the speaker of the House has even mulled abandoning his own party's presidential nominee is illustrative of the extraordinarily bizarre political climate in the Republican Party.
"I think they all face the same dilemma to varying degrees," a senior House Republican leadership aide said, echoing the sentiment of multiple high-level aides and lawmakers interviewed by POLITICO. "How to express displeasure in a meaningful way... How best to help members in tough races... How to try to rebuild the party post the anticipated apocalypse. I think they are all having individual and group discussions wrestling with this."
Trump's performance during Sunday's ugly and oftentimes vicious debate could've been enough to stanch GOP support from bleeding further. Over the weekend, nearly three dozen Senate and House Republicans said either that they couldn't vote for Trump, or urged him to leave the ticket, after the video in which he bragged about trying to lure a woman into an affair and claimed that he kisses and fondles women with impunity because he is famous. The scandal threatened to derail Trump's campaign.
A number of Senate and House Republicans in tough races have already announced they won't back Trump, leaving their leaders to decide whether to follow suit.
Trump, in turn, has lashed out at establishment Republicans who abandoned him. Capitol Hill GOP insiders are fretting about the political situation they're now in. If they criticize Trump, they could lose the support of the Republican base. If they don't, independents might flee.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, frequently sympathetic to Ryan, suggested Sunday that the GOP congressional leaders withdraw their support for Trump if they need to do so to save their majorities.
"They can’t be blamed for breaking from Mr. Trump if that is what their consciences demand or if that is the best path to political survival this year," the Journal's editorial board wrote. "At some point Republicans running for the House and Senate may have to mobilize voters with an argument that they need them as a check on Hillary Clinton."
Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have all disavowed Trump's 2005 comments. Trump on Sunday night dismissed the video as "locker room talk" and tried to move beyond the controversy.
"I apologized to my family, I apologized to the American people. Certainly I'm not proud of it, but this is locker room talk," Trump added. "Yes, I'm very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it's locker room talk."
But it was an incident before the debate that alarmed Capitol Hill Republicans. Trump held an impromptu press event Sunday evening with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Many Republican elected officials were hoping Trump wouldn't go there, given that Bill Clinton has been out of office for nearly 17 years. Trump suggested Hillary Clinton enabled her husband's improper behavior by attacking the credibility of his accusers.
The four women who attended the event, broadcast on Facebook, were Paula Jones, Kathy Shelton, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. Jones, Willey, and Broaddrick have accused Bill Clinton of making improper sexual advances, while Shelton said Hillary Clinton undermined her credibility while defending a client during a 1970s rape case.
"These four courageous women have asked to be here, and it was our honor to help them," Trump said.
The Clinton campaign dismissed the event as part of Trump's "destructive race to the bottom." But elements in the GOP base pine for that confrontational style. And it indicated to some Republicans that Trump will fight on and keep the race close. That is one thing that helps congressional Republicans.