Donald Trump is coming to his meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan Thursday to deliver a message to the Republican establishment, his advisers say: Get on board or get out of the way.
“Mr. Trump doesn’t need to do anything,” said Representative Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who co-chairs Trump’s U.S. House Leadership Committee. “As Republicans in the House, we got used to the idea that our speaker was the de facto leader of the party. We didn’t have somebody to represent our party against President Obama’s administration. But that’s over now — it’s Trump, whether people like it or not.”
Both men are likely to find some way to put a pleasant face on the meeting, but they start far apart on the likely outcome, according to conversations with people in both camps. Ryan is looking for the the party’s presidential nominee to somehow declare fealty to conservative principles. Trump is not willing to cede any ground in his role as the incoming standard-bearer for the Republican Party.
Both sides say they don’t expect Ryan to suddenly come out and endorse Trump. Ryan aides say the speaker mostly wants to get to know Trump better, having met him once before.
Instead, Thursday’s meetings will set the tone for whether either Trump or Ryan is willing to budge in the name of preventing a Republican divide, and how much they’re willing to do in the name of achieving party unity this fall.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who helped broker the get-togethers, will be at the first meeting between Ryan and Trump. From there, the pair meet with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry. Trump is also to meet with Senate Republican leaders later in the day.
Ryan, who set these events in motion by publicly withholding his endorsement of Trump, has been trying to play down expectations for Thursday’s meetings, calling them the beginning of a process. He said the two men only met in person back in 2012, the year that Ryan ran for vice president on a ticket with Mitt Romney, who has become one of Trump’s most vocal critics.
“We just need to get to know each other,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday. “We come from different wings of the party. The goal here is to unify the various wings of the party around common principles.”
Beyond that, exactly what Ryan will be looking for from Trump isn’t clear. Ryan is believed to be keeping his options open for a possible presidential bid in 2020, but he also faces the more immediate challenge of making sure that his fellow House Republicans don’t suffer a humiliating defeat at the polls in November if Trump’s candidacy turns into a landslide defeat.
One House leadership aide said Ryan plans to discuss two main points: how Trump can bring along more conservatives who don’t feel like they have a home in his current candidacy, and why Trump should make conservative principles, such as limited government, part of his campaign.
Ryan isn’t intending to hold a detailed policy discussion, according to a lawmaker familiar with his intentions, who added that the first meeting will be more about establishing a one-on-one relationship. Ryan and Trump have very sharp policy differences. While Trump has based his campaign on his hostility to free-trade deals and a pledge to sharply restrict immigration, including a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, Ryan is a dedicated free-trader and has pushed an immigration overhaul.
Some of Ryan’s fellow Republicans, however, won’t have much patience for a long, drawn-out reconciliation. Even two of his own top lieutenants have already publicly backed the New York billionaire — McCarthy of California and Scalise of Louisiana.
“I don’t think Trump necessarily needs Paul Ryan to get elected president — he hadn’t needed him so far,” said Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who is among those who argue it is time for all Republicans need to get behind Trump.
‘Time for Hugs’
Trump also doesn’t appear too interested in being seen courting Ryan.
“Paul needs to realize that Mr. Trump is the Republican nominee,” Hunter said. “He got the votes by the people of the country. Paul is starting to realize it but they all need to fully come around.”
“After every boxing match, everybody hugs,” Hunter added. “It’s time for hugs.”
Ahead of the meeting, Trump deployed Ben Carson — his one-time Republican presidential rival — to reach out to Ryan. Armstrong Williams, Carson’s top adviser, said that the telephone conversation Tuesday night was “productive.”
Williams said that Carson vouched to Ryan about Trump’s leadership capabilities. Williams said Carson told Ryan that Trump “is a good listener, he’s very engaging, he cares about this country and he’s not as polarizing as he’s being portrayed.”
“And he’s very substantive,” Williams said Carson told Ryan.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine two more different personality types than the impulsive Trump and the wonky Ryan.
Representative David Schweikert, an Arizona Republican, notes that Ryan has spent most of his adult life in government, as opposed to Trump, who has never served as an elected official.
Schweikert, who used to have an office near Ryan’s, recalls, “He’d come out and ask ‘How’s your family?’ And then he’d immediately also ask something like, ‘Did you see what’s happening to the GDP?’ Real wonky stuff.”
“The speaker sees things through a policy lens. That’s what makes him often seem so blunt,” Schweikert added. “Now, the question is does the Trump campaign move more toward a policy focus? I think one of the things to look for is does Trump show up alone, or just with political advisers, or does he show up with policy people?”
Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, an ally of the speaker, predicted Wednesday that “in the end,” Ryan and Trump “will find common ground.”
“Paul Ryan is very principled but he is also very professional and pragmatic,” Cole said. Ryan knows that “the most important part of his job is leading us and helping us retain our majority,” he told reporters. “I don’t see how being at odds with your nominee helps you achieve that objective,” Cole said.
In public, Trump has so far been mostly respectful toward Ryan. During a Trump campaign rally in March in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, the billionaire asked for his supporters’ thoughts on their local congressman.
“How do you like Paul Ryan? Do you like him?” Trump asked the packed conference room. The capacity crowd of about 1,000 people erupted in loud boos. “Wow,” Trump said, surprised. “I was told to be nice to Paul Ryan.”