PARK CITY, Utah – They have been friends and political allies for many years, a trio of Wisconsin politicians who found their way onto the national stage. But on the matter of Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus cannot agree.
All three were in attendance at Mitt Romney’s off-the-record ideas summit, here in the mountains of Utah this weekend. In microcosm, Ryan, Priebus and Walker underscore the agonies and the choices of every GOP leader in this time of Trump.
Their separate appearances were a reminder of how Trump’s candidacy has divided the party and bedeviled its leaders. Their positions can be explained, though in a disjointed party, they all will find critics of the paths they’ve chosen.
Priebus is the advocate. Ryan is the unenthusiastic Trump supporter. Walker is the symbol of GOP resistance, up to a point at least.
GOP Chair Reince Priebus
Priebus has spent the past year trying to negotiate a peace between Trump and the party. At the beginning, one of his and other Republicans’ fears was that Trump might eventually bolt and run as an independent.
Last September, Priebus traveled to Trump Tower and persuaded the candidate to sign a pledge to support the eventual nominee, as others in the field had done. After that, Priebus never worried about Trump leaving the GOP. Now he wants the other candidates who signed the pledge to make good on it.
During the primaries, he withstood Trump’s attacks on the nominating system as rigged, even though the rules were helping Trump.
He rushed to declare Trump the presumptive nominee the night of the Indiana primary. Now he is running interference for Trump.
Gov. Scott Walker
Walker has been resistant to Trump from the day he dropped out of the race for the nomination. His decision to suspend his campaign last September came swiftly and with surprise, though he was struggling at the time.
In the run-up to the Wisconsin primary in April, Walker helped lead the opposition to Trump. He endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz and put the state’s GOP apparatus behind the Texan’s candidacy. That united opposition helped Cruz defeat Trump.
As a candidate, Walker had signed the pledge to support the nominee. Sometime after the Wisconsin primary, he said he would support Trump if he became the nominee. But in the past week, he stepped back from that commitment over Trump’s racially charged attack on federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel.
“He’s [Trump] not yet the nominee,” he told WKOW-TV. “Officially that won’t happen until the middle of July, and so for me that’s kind of the time frame that, in particular, I want to make sure he renounces what he says — at least in regards to this judge.” Walker told reporters here Thursday night that his position remains unchanged.
Speaker Paul Ryan
Ryan’s path has been far more tortured. When Trump became the presumptive nominee and others began to endorse, Ryan announced that he wasn’t yet ready. He wanted to hear more about what Trump stood for. His declaration was viewed as a principled stand and reverberated across the party. Then in a matter of weeks, he wrote in Wisconsin’s Janesville Gazette that he would support Trump.
The next day, he had to denounce Trump for the comments about Curiel. As the outrage built, he declared that what Trump had said was “sort of like a textbook definition of a racist comment.” But he maintained his support for Trump, saying they had more common ground “on the policies of the day.”
When Ryan appeared at the Romney gathering on Friday, he was hit with a series of tough questions. Moderator Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, pressed him to explain his decision to endorse Trump and asked whether there was any line that Trump could cross that would force him to withdraw that support.
The attendees here included many donors and fundraisers who are opposed to Trump but also sympathetic to Ryan.
The speaker tried to explain his decision, noting that he was under pressure from his own House members, many from districts where Trump is highly popular. His holdout put them in a potentially awkward position at home.