Former House Speaker Paul Ryan has largely disappeared from the national political scene. Which makes what he said earlier this week about the House vote to impeach Donald Trump in 2021 all the more notable.
“There were a lot of people who wanted to vote like Tom but who just didn’t have the guts to do it,” Ryan said of South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice, who he had traveled to the state to endorse, according to the Myrtle Beach Sun News. “There are a lot of people who say they’re going to vote their conscience, they’re going to vote for the Constitution, they’re going to vote for their convictions but when it gets hard to do that they don’t do it.”
Rice is one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump following the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. As I wrote at the time, Rice’s vote caught Republicans by surprise as he had given little indication of his plan to break from his party.
In a statement released by his office at the time, Rice explained his vote:
“Once the violence began, when the Capitol was under siege, when the Capitol Police were being beaten and killed, and when the Vice President and the Congress were being locked down, the President was watching and tweeted about the Vice President’s lack of courage.
“For hours while the riot continued, the President communicated only on Twitter and offered only weak requests for restraint. …
“… It has been a week since so many were injured, the United States Capitol was ransacked, and six people were killed, including two police officers. Yet, the President has not addressed the nation to ask for calm. He has not visited the injured and grieving. He has not offered condolences. Yesterday in a press briefing at the border, he said his comments were ‘perfectly appropriate.’”
In a June 2021 profile of Rice in The Washington Post, he was more succinct about his vote: “It was very clear to me, I took an oath to defend the Constitution. I didn’t take an oath to defend Donald Trump. What he did was a frontal assault on the Constitution.”
Trump, of course, disagrees. And as he has done with almost every one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him, the former President has endorsed a primary challenger to Rice. Of state Rep. Russell Fry, Trump said in February: “Russell loves our Military and our Vets — he is strong on Border Security and Crime. Russell Fry, who is all in for the Palmetto State, has my Complete and Total Endorsement. VOTE TOM RICE OUT NOW!”
Ryan’s appearance in South Carolina for Rice comes in advance of the state’s June 14 primary. Rice has raised almost double what Frye has brought in over the course of the election cycle ($1.9 million raised for Rice, $767,000 for Fry). They are two of the seven candidates running for the Republican nomination in South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District.
For Ryan, his comments represent a clear criticism of not only the man who still runs the Republican Party, but also of many of the colleagues he once served with. While Ryan doesn’t name any names, it’s easy to imagine his critique being directed at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who hopes to be speaker come January 2023.
McCarthy was openly critical of Trump in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 riot.
“The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said on the House floor soon after the insurrection. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.”
We later learned that McCarthy had told House Republicans on a conference call several days later: “I had it with this guy. What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it.”
McCarthy voted against impeachment. He has since tried to downplay Trump’s actions on January 6.
“What I talked to President Trump about, I was the first person to contact him when the riots was going on,” he said in interview on Fox in January. “He didn’t see it. What he ended the call was saying – telling me, he’ll put something out to make sure to stop this. And that’s what he did, he put a video out later.”