Paul Ryan avoids talking Trump as he stumps for a GOP White House

Paul Ryan: I already voted for Trump
Paul Ryan: I already voted for Trump


    Paul Ryan: I already voted for Trump


Paul Ryan: I already voted for Trump 01:26

Story highlights

  • Paul Ryan voted for Donald Trump but is taking pains to avoid saying his name on the trail
  • Ryan is stumping for fellow GOP congressional candidates but risks angering Trump backers critical of what they see as lukewarm support

(CNN)GOP House candidate Trey Hollingsworth urged Indiana voters on Tuesday to get behind the "triple T team" -- Rep. Todd Young, Donald Trump and, of course, himself.

But when House Speaker Paul Ryan took the stage minutes later, he left one "T" out: Trump.
As he campaigned for Hollingsworth, Ryan continued the awkward balancing act that he has performed across the country for the past several weeks: Make a pitch for Republicans to keep both chambers of Congress and attack Hillary Clinton -- but not mention Trump by name.
    "Republicans need to come home," Ryan told voters in Sellersburg, Indiana. "Republicans need to go vote. Republicans need to make sure we get our country back on the right track."
    Trump supporters chant 'Paul Ryan sucks' before rally
    donald trump paul ryan sucks chant green bay rally von_00001913


      Trump supporters chant 'Paul Ryan sucks' before rally


    Trump supporters chant 'Paul Ryan sucks' before rally 00:30
    And he added: "We are going to win everything including the White House."
    Tuesday morning, Ryan took the matter one step further, announcing in his first nationally televised interview in weeks that he voted early in his home state of Wisconsin for "our nominee," avoiding again mentioning the name "Trump."
    "I am supporting our entire Republican ticket -- I have been all along," Ryan said on Fox News Channel. "My focus personally right now is saving our House majority."
    Ryan has been left in this difficult position in the aftermath of the "Access Hollywood" video where Trump was caught on a hot mic talking in vulgar terms about women. After those comments leaked, Ryan told House GOP members on a private conference call last month that he could no longer defend Trump or campaign with him -- prompting anger on the right.
    Since then, Ryan has kept an unusually low profile, hoping to stay out of the fray as he works under the radar for House candidates. But his position has angered ardent Trump supporters, who are eager to pin the blame for a potential loss on Republicans like Ryan and are searching for ways to undermine his bid to win reelection as House speaker next year -- assuming the GOP keeps its majority.

    Building goodwill amongst Republicans

    It remains to be seen whether his latest gambit -- stepping up his criticism of Clinton and announcing his vote for Trump -- is enough to assuage his conservative critics, some of whom want to remove him from the speakership next year.
    Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a conservative who voted for Ryan's speaker bid last year, won't commit to voting for him next year in large part because of his move to distance himself from Trump. He urged the speaker to do more for the GOP nominee this week.
    "In the face of the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming president, every Republican should be working hard to elect Donald Trump," Bridenstine told CNN Tuesday. "I'm glad to know Paul Ryan will vote for Mr. Trump. Now he should get out and campaign for him to win Wisconsin."
    Ryan officials declined to comment to CNN on his handling of Trump.
    But they point to his aggressive work on the campaign trail for House candidates, hitting nearly 25 states and more than 50 cities in October and November, including helping the National Republican Congressional Committee secure more than a $40 million windfall. A Ryan aide said that the speaker helped raise an additional $2.5 million as a special guest at member and candidate fundraising events last month.
    Such moves are bound to build goodwill among House Republicans, especially if they hang onto their majority. But he still has the specter of Trump looming over him.
    On Tuesday, Ryan indicated that he wouldn't be campaigning with Trump, saying of his approach: "I haven't changed anything. He even acknowledged that he had only just learned that Trump planned to campaign in his state with Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday as well.
    "I just heard about it 10 minutes ago, actually," Ryan said on Fox News when asked about the rally in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. "I didn't know that."
    Some Ryan allies in the House GOP conference privately say the speaker has badly miscalculated in his handling of Trump, first by declining to initially endorse him when he became the presumptive presidential nominee in May and later by telling his colleagues on last month's call that he could no longer campaign with or defend Trump.
    "That opening comment startled the Trump people and gives them an excuse to criticize Ryan," said one Republican House member on the call.
    The comments sparked the ire of the far-right of the GOP and even Trump himself, who accused the House speaker of trying to sabotage the Republican nominee and potentially help his own future presidential ambitions. Some threatened to undermine his bid to win the speakership by voting against him and denying him the 218 votes to retain the gavel.
    Conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus have already warned they are evaluating how the speaker handles year-end spending bill talks. The roughly 40 members of this group are the most vocal critics of the speaker, but they are split about whether to try and back someone else for the job.
    The group has a history of criticizing its own leaders, but an unwillingness to field any candidates to replace those in top posts.
    Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a member of the Freedom Caucus who began the effort to oust former Speaker John Boehner last summer, said extra space on CNN on Monday, "So at this point, I know of no one running against the speaker. And so it could very well be that he is running unopposed in January."
    While Ryan does not have a challenger yet to take him on, some Republicans could make his life difficult if they withhold their support to deny him a simple majority of support on the House floor in January, causing embarrassment for the speaker.

    Hopes to move away from Trump talk

    But Ryan has sought to pivot away from his flap over Trump in recent weeks, something that could alleviate tensions in the conference. He privately expressed regret about the episode to donors, saying he didn't intend to pick a fight with Trump.
    Since then, he has avoided the Trump topic, stumping for candidates in events where reporters aren't allowed to ask questions and only sitting down for a handful of interviews with local reporters and friendly radio hosts.
    But he has sought to tamp down any disagreements with Trump when he's been asked about the GOP nominee a handful of times in the past month.
    In an interview this week for KETV in Omaha, Ryan responded to a reporter's question about whether he could work with Trump.
    "We have common cause on the big foundational issues of the day," Ryan said of him and Trump.
    And in the meantime, he has ratcheted up his attacks on the Clintons, trying to focus on a common GOP enemy. When it was revealed Friday that the FBI was looking into additional Clinton emails, Ryan was one of the first GOP members lashing the Democratic candidate, saying she should be denied classified briefings.
    Stumping Saturday for House candidates in Nevada, Ryan said that the Clintons play by a "different set of rules."
    "Do we want four years of this?" he said.
    Throwing red meat to the conservative crowd in Indiana, Ryan made the implicit case for Trump, even if he didn't say his name.
    "There's always a scandal, then there's another scandal, and then there's an investigation," Ryan said of the Clintons. "You never know what's coming next. It takes the country through these awful ugly moments."