Paul Ryan does this little dance every time an uncomfortable moment arises involving President Donald J. Trump.
Call it the Ryan Shuffle.
He dodges. He weaves. He loses his voice - and then he loses his nerve.
On Wednesday, Ryan was dancing again, refusing to answer a simple question:
Would he have taken a meeting with a Russian operative offering dirt on a political opponent?
There’s a one-word answer to this question: It’s N-O.
Instead, Ryan replied, “I’m not going into hypotheticals.”
Hypotheticals? This isn’t a hypothetical. It actually happened.
For months, I have wondered what happened to the old Paul Ryan, the principled conservative schooled in the “happy warrior” school of politics by his mentor, the late Jack Kemp. What would it take for Ryan to reset his compass after it was knocked askew by Trump’s warping magnetic field?
Apparently, the latest news about Donald Trump Jr. isn’t enough.
Emails discovered by The New York Times and later released by the younger Trump show that he met with a Russian lawyer during the campaign last year after being told in an email that she had damaging information about Hillary Clinton and was working at the behest of the Russian government. Paul Manafort, who was running the campaign at the time, and Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband and a top adviser to the president, also attended that meeting.
Not one of them was bothered enough by the idea of a foreign national interfering in an American election to politely decline and call the FBI. It’s the clearest evidence yet that top campaign officials were aware of potential Russian interference in the election and were willing to at least hear what the Russians had to offer.
As the online forum on national security Just Security noted, “The act of offering such information was likely, at minimum, a trial balloon, and at best (from Moscow’s perspective), a chance to pass certain information from an agent of the Russian government to the Trump campaign through the candidate’s campaign manager and son, thereby also implicating Donald J. Trump himself.”
In other words, Trump’s Russian Problem cannot be dismissed as “fake news.” It’s real. It’s serious. And it’s time Ryan got serious, too.
But Ryan has a problem. He is so eager to enact a Republican agenda now that his party controls the government that he’s paralyzed. Whenever Trump says something ridiculous, Ryan hems and haws - he does the Ryan Shuffle - and then does nothing of substance.
Ryan thinks he needs Trump. But how has it worked out so far? The health care bill is on the ropes, and nothing of substance has been accomplished since the reality TV star took office. Trump’s White House is inept. It’s likely to remain inept.
Ryan’s response was a stark contrast to the one offered by his Republican colleague, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Green Bay. Gallagher, who in his short career in Congress has shown a refreshing tendency to speak his mind, said he had “serious concerns” about what Trump Jr. had done.
“There’s no way to read it without having serious concerns, and it further underscores the importance of having a thorough, independent investigation,” he told conservative talk radio host Jerry Bader.
Of course, it’s easier for a freshman congressman to say what he thinks. He doesn’t have to balance dozens of competing constituencies and keep a fractious GOP caucus from breaking apart. Ryan did say that was “absolutely unacceptable” for Russia to interfere in U.S. elections and noted that he supported special counsel Bob Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling.
But would he have taken a meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with ties to the Kremlin?
Of course not. Unlike the Trumps, who learned their ethics in the smarmy depths of New York real estate, Ryan has a sense of boundaries.
But Ryan couldn’t bring himself to answer the question, and his silence says much about the price he is paying for his marriage of convenience to the charlatan named Donald J. Trump.
David D. Haynes is the editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email: david.haynesjrn.com. Twitter: DavidDHaynes