Pence backs Ryan as speaker after repeatedly declining to do so

Paul Ryan: I already voted for Trump
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Story highlights

  • Ryan's spat with Trump has strained his relationship with Pence
  • Since the interview, Pence has stressed that Ryan should remain speaker

(CNN)Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence on Thursday emphatically backed his friend and former House colleague Paul Ryan to remain House speaker after repeatedly declining to do so in an interview published earlier in the day.

Asked by CNN in Portage, Michigan, whether he backed Ryan, Pence responded, "I do."
    "We are so grateful for Paul Ryan's support for this ticket," Pence told CNN. "Paul Ryan is a personal friend. My respect for Paul Ryan is boundless and I support his re-election to Congress, and I support his re-election as speaker of the House."
    Things got awkward earlier Thursday when Pence declined three times in an interview to say whether he supported Ryan.
    "My respect for Paul Ryan is boundless," Pence told the National Review's Tim Alberta, who interviewed the Indiana governor about his role as Donald Trump's running mate. Pence repeated his praise for Ryan two times in the interview.
    But when Alberta pressed him about backing Ryan to keep the gavel, he sidestepped the question, saying, "I'm not a member of the House Republican Conference anymore. I wouldn't presume upon what the members of the conference choose."
    When asked why Pence declined three times to answer the question, Marc Short, a senior Pence adviser, simply said, "Mike Pence supports Paul Ryan 100%."
    Ryan gushed about his "good friend" in July when news broke that Pence would be selected as Trump's running mate. But the speaker's high-profile spat with Trump over the course of the 2016 campaign may have caused a falling out in his relationship with Pence.
    Mindful of the appearance of Pence distancing himself in the interview -- especially at a time when some Trump allies are suggesting Ryan should be replaced -- a spokesman for the VP candidate worked to do some damage control, telling CNN, "If he were a member of the House Republican Conference, he would vote to re-elect Paul Ryan speaker. There is no question."
    And in his speech Thursday in Prole, Iowa, Pence made a point to stress that Ryan should remain speaker.
    "Donald Trump has a plan, Donald Trump has a plan after we re-elect Republican majorities in the House and Senate," Pence said, adding that that those majorities would be "led by Mitch McConnell in the US Senate and Paul Ryan in the United States House."
    Ryan's tumultuous relationship with Trump could also have some impact when Congress returns later this month and House Republicans vote on whether or not he will remain in the post next year.
    He initially refrained from endorsing the businessman when he won the party's nomination in May, and even after he finally did back him, Ryan made a point to distance himself on several occasions from controversial comments.
    In August, when Ryan faced a primary challenge from a long-shot businessman, Trump seemed to want payback, saying in similar terms that the speaker used in May about his decision, "I'm just not quite there yet" to endorse Ryan's re-election.
    Pence broke then with the GOP nominee and enthusiastically endorsed the Wisconsin Republican. Eventually, Trump did support the speaker's candidacy over his challenger.
    But after the 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape showed Trump making graphic and vulgar comments about women Ryan told House GOP members he would no longer defend the nominee and would instead focus solely on keeping the Republican majority in Congress. Trump hit back complaining that the speaker was giving him "zero support" and ripped him as a "very weak and ineffective leader."
    Ryan, who has spent his entire career in politics, has acknowledged his differences with the billionaire reality star on style and substance, but he emphasized his close relationship with Pence, who he views as an ideological soul mate.
    "I love the guy, I love him -- he's actually a buddy of mine," Ryan said in a radio interview in July. He mentioned that during their dozen years in the House together, "we were allies on just about everything." He pointed out that Pence was one of the few House Republicans to endorse his budget, which contained major entitlement reforms that were controversial at the time, calling the Indiana Republican "a very good movement conservative."
    When the pick became official, Ryan, who was on the 2012 GOP ticket, said, "I can think of no better choice for our vice presidential candidate."
    The Pence comments this week are especially surprising because they come at a time the he knows is sensitive for Ryan. Some advocates on the right want to penalize the speaker because he has not appeared with Trump publicly at campaign events.
    On Wednesday, a small group of House conservatives met in Washington to discuss strategies for gaining more power in the House, including a proposal to vote for Ryan to keep in spot in return for getting their own seat at the leadership table. The House Republican Conference scheduled the election for speaker for November 15, and Ryan already faces some backlash from members who didn't think he needed to be so vocal about his splits from Trump.
    Pence's campaign aide wouldn't say the Indiana governor refused three times in the interview with National Review to endorse another term for Ryan. But the spokesman stressed, "We need strong Republican leadership in congress to enact Donald Trump's plan to make American great again."
    Ryan's camp referred questions about the interview to Pence's campaign.
    Depending on the election results on Tuesday, Ryan and Pence, two conservatives who became friends in the House, could find themselves among those being mentioned as possible 2020 presidential rivals as the divided Republican party works to chart its future.