Ryan, Priebus on a Sinking Ship
Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus may go down with the USS Trump.
At the outset let me confess I was all wrong about candidate Donald Trump, suggesting he had no chance of even winning the GOP nomination. And I was equally wrong in predicting problems for Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus for supporting Trump.
On the other hand, maybe the relative sanity I assumed prevailed in American politics is simply going to arrive a bit later than some predicted.
Consider the flagging fortunes of Reince Priebus. His rise to become President Trump’s chief of staff may have set him up for an embarrassing fall. The administration Priebus runs was recently savaged as a “Human Resources disaster area” by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who’s well-connected to Republican politicos.
“The Trump administration,” he writes, “has hundreds of senior and midlevel positions to fill, and… few people of any quality or experience are going to want to join a team that is already toxic. Nobody is going to want to become the next H. R. McMaster, a formerly respected figure who is now permanently tainted because he threw his lot in with Donald Trump.”
And at the center of all this is Priebus: “This is a White House in which the internal nickname for the chief of staff is Rancid.”
Whew. The press has been speculating for months that Preibus could be fired by Trump and Fox Business is now positing that Priebus’ early return from Trump’s Middle East trip is a sign the chief of staff is about to be let go. That might actually be better for his reputation than to continue on with an imploding administration that, as Brooks concludes, has no chance of ever becoming an effective governing institution.
Meanwhile, Priebus’ friend and fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan faces a situation nearly as ugly. The House Speaker’s pragmatic embrace of Trump has increasingly left Ryan vulnerable to the most damning political charge — a lack of patriotism — with no concern about Russia’s efforts to undermine America’s democracy.
The latest evidence of this is a Washington Post story by Adam Entous reporting that Ryan was in a meeting where House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA ) joked that Trump was on the payroll of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.
This took place on June 15, 2016, just one day after a story reported the Democratic National Committee had been hacked by the Russian government and not long after Ryan and McCarthy had just “emerged from separate talks at the Capitol” with the Ukrainian Prime Minister who told them about “the Kremlin financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.”
So McCarthy was joking about a hostile nation trying to undermine democracy in Eastern Europe and America. And Ryan’s response has the feel of a Mafia don shushing his lieutenants. He told the other Republicans in the room that “This is an off the record” discussion… No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
Ryan and McCarthy denied this story even after Entous said he had a transcript of the meeting and finally admitted it was true only after he told them he had a tape recording of the meeting. They then passed it off as a joke, but it clearly shows they had suspicions about connections between Russia and Trump, who just a month later called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.
This latest revelation adds more to a timeline of Ryan’s willingness to benefit from Russia’s cyber attack on America. In late August Ryan, who served as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was contacted by Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who asked him not to use the documents hacked by the Russians against Democratic candidates. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi later sent a letter to Ryan making the same request and he never responded to either of them. And the stolen material was used in ads against Democrats.
Ryan was one of 12 members of Congress briefed by U.S. intelligence agents about the Russian cyber attacks and asked by President Barack Obama to present a united bipartisan front in opposition to this. But Ryan and Republicans declined.
Later, after Trump’s election, Ryan repeatedly resisted calls for a congressional investigation of Russian interference in America’s election. And then he continued to support Rep. Devin Nunes as the head of the House Intelligence Committee’s Russian investigation even after Nunes shared intelligence on Russia and the Trump campaign with the President, a potential target of the investigation. Only after weathering a week of criticism did Nunes decide to recuse, with Ryan’s support.
And after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, the man leading the Russian investigation, Ryan defended it. Even after Trump went on national TV and admitted the Russian investigation helped push him to fire Comey, Ryan blamed Trump’s opponents for the situation, saying “It is obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president.”
Meanwhile, Ryan’s approval rating in the polls has been plummeting: a Journal Sentinel summary of five different national polls done in March and April show the House Speaker’s approval rating ranged as low as 28 percent and his disapproval rating as high as 54 percent. Ryan was by then less popular than even Donald Trump.
As the revelations continue to emerge — the latest is that Trump tried to convince two intelligence chiefs to push back against Comey’s Russian investigation — those tied closely to the president will be stained as well. Should Ryan someday run for president — clearly a future goal — his repeated unwillingness to stand up to a cyber attack on America by one of its greatest enemies could make him a fatally flawed candidate. That might even become a problem in running for reelection in Wisconsin in 2018, where the last Marquette Law School poll showed his disapproval rating has increased and half of respondents were concerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election — and this was in March, before Comey’s firing.
But even as the national press had a field day with the story of Ryan warning Republicans not to divulge the McCarthy joke about Trump’s connection to Russia, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has tried to pretend nothing has happened. Craig Gilbert’s recent update on Ryan and Trump buried the McCarthy incident on the 30th paragraph (back on the jump page) of the JS story, and simply omitted Ryan’s role in pledging his GOP confederates to secrecy.
Similarly, the newspaper had declined to report on Ryan’s complicity in the GOP’s use of Russian-hacked data in 2016 campaign ads and his unwillingness to take a stand when given information last summer on the cyber attack. No doubt most of its Republican readers will approve. But what about Democrats, independents and even a minority of Republicans who do care about the Russian investigation?
Trump’s mounting problems have been frequently compared to Watergate, but it’s worth noting that Nixon’s coverup wasn’t done to hide unpatriotic complicity with an unfriendly foreign power. Should that ever be proven in the case of Trump’s campaign, both Ryan and the newspaper may have uncomfortable questions to answer.
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