Paul Ryan Sees His Wild Washington Journey Coming to An End
Spirits were high inside the House chamber on Thursday, November 16, when, in the early afternoon, the gavel fell and a measure to rewrite the American tax code passed on a partisan tally of 227 to 205. As the deciding votes were cast—recorded in green on the black digital scoreboard suspended above the floor—the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, threw his head back and slammed his hands together. Soon he was engulfed in a sea of dark suits, every Republican lawmaker wanting to slap him on the shoulder and be a part of his moment.
Ryan was the man of the hour. Having spent a quarter-century in Washington—as an intern, waiter, junior think-tanker, Hill staffer and, since 1999, as a member of Congress—he had never wavered in his obsession with fixing what he viewed as the nation’s two fundamental weaknesses: its Byzantine tax system and ballooning entitlement state. Now, with House Republicans celebrating the once-in-a-generation achievement of a tax overhaul, Ryan was feeling both jubilant and relieved—and a little bit greedy. Reveling in the afterglow, Ryan remarked to several colleagues how this day had proven they could accomplish difficult things—and that next year, they should set their sights on an even tougher challenge: entitlement reform. The speaker has since gone public with this aspiration, suggesting that 2018 should be the year Washington finally tackles what he sees as the systemic problems with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Story Continued Below
Tinkering with the social safety net is a bold undertaking, particularly in an election year. But Ryan has good reason for throwing caution to the wind: His time in Congress is running short.
Despite several landmark legislative wins this year, and a better-than-expected relationship with President Donald Trump, Ryan has made it known to some of his closest confidants that this will be his final term as speaker. He consults a small crew of family, friends and staff for career advice, and is always cautious not to telegraph his political maneuvers. But the expectation of his impending departure has escaped the hushed confines of Ryan’s inner circle and permeated the upper-most echelons of the GOP. In recent interviews with three dozen people who know the speaker—fellow lawmakers, congressional and administration aides, conservative intellectuals and Republican lobbyists—not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018.
Ryan was tiring of D.C. even before reluctantly accepting the speakership. He told his predecessor, John Boehner, that it would be his last job in politics—and that it wasn’t a long-term proposition. In the months following Trump’s victory, he began contemplating the scenarios of his departure. More recently, over closely held conversations with his kitchen cabinet, Ryan’s preference has become clear: He would like to serve through Election Day 2018 and retire ahead of the next Congress. This would give Ryan a final legislative year to chase his second white whale, entitlement reform, while using his unrivaled fundraising prowess to help protect the House majority—all with the benefit of averting an ugly internecine power struggle during election season. Ryan has never loved the job; he oozes aggravation when discussing intra-party debates over “micro-tactics,” and friends say he feels like he’s running a daycare center. On a personal level, going home at the end of next year would allow Ryan, who turns 48 next month, to keep promises to family; his three children are in or entering their teenage years, and Ryan, whose father died at 55, wants desperately to live at home with them full-time before they begin flying the nest. The best part of this scenario, people close to the speaker emphasize: He wouldn’t have to share the ballot with Trump again in 2020.
And yet speculation is building that, Ryan, even fresh off his tax-reform triumph, might not be able to leave on his own terms. He now faces a massive pileup of cannot-fail bills in January and February. It’s an outrageous legislative lift: Congress must, in the coming weeks, fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, modify spending caps, address the continuation of health-care subsidies, shell out additional funds for disaster relief and deal with the millions of undocumented young immigrants whose protected status has been thrown into limbo. It represents the most menacing stretch of Ryan’s speakership—one that will almost certainly require him to break promises made to his conference and give significant concessions to Democrats in exchange for their votes. To meet key deadlines, he’ll have to approve sizable spending increases and legal status for minors who came to the U.S. illegally—two things that could raise the ire of the GOP base and embolden his conservative rivals on Capitol Hill. There is no great outcome available, Ryan has conceded to some trusted associates—only survival. “Win the day. Win the next day. And then win the week,” Ryan has been preaching to his leadership team.
The speaker can’t afford to admit he’s a lame-duck—his fundraising capacity and dealmaking leverage would be vastly diminished, making the House all the more difficult to govern. When asked at the end of a Thursday morning press conference if he was leaving soon, Ryan shot a quick “no” over his shoulder as he walked out of the room.
Ryan is backed by the vast majority of the GOP conference, but even a small group of dissenters can make the speaker’s life miserable—and he knows it. When Ryan succeeded Boehner in the fall of 2015, the new speaker sought to eliminate—or at least weaken—the parliamentary tactic that had been used against his predecessor. By filing a “motion to vacate the chair,” Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina had found a way to force a vote on the speakership at any time—a potential humiliation that Boehner avoided by retiring. Ryan, working with Boehner’s team during the transition, was unsuccessful in banning this practice. But he made it clear to Boehner at the time, and to his own allies upon assuming the speakership, that he would not serve at the whims of Meadows and the House Freedom Caucus, a group of some 35 conservative hard-liners. In an interview this fall with POLITICO Magazine, Ryan said the motion to vacate doesn’t loom large as a constant threat to his job security. “No, because it’s not a job I ever wanted in the first place,” Ryan said. “If I was dying to be speaker, I guess it probably would be a dagger over my head. But I don’t think like that.”
Members of the Freedom Caucus don’t necessarily believe this rhetoric from Ryan, but they respect the strategic advantage it gives him. After all, when Boehner left town, Ryan was the only consensus replacement—and even then, members had to beg him to assume the most powerful office on Capitol Hill. Given that history, any conservative who attempts to overthrow Ryan would make the Freedom Caucus—and its two leaders, Meadows and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan—look like nihilists who collect speakers’ scalps for sport. This is especially true without any obvious, universally acceptable successor waiting in the wings. “There are no more golden boys left,” Meadows said in an interview, discussing the possibility of Ryan’s departure.
Ryan’s problems are not limited to the Freedom Caucus; there is, without question, wider discontent in the conference than the speaker appreciates, with legislators across the ideological and experiential spectrums grumbling about a hyper-centralized process that gives them a vote on the floor but little else. That said, it requires a special brand of gumption to go after the speaker’s gavel—and the usual suspects can be found in and on the periphery of the Freedom Caucus. These members, who have been eerily quiet for much of 2017, have begun making noise about a mutiny. The expectation of a major betrayal on Ryan’s part—either on spending levels, immigration or a combination of the two—has prompted incessant chatter in recent weeks of someone filing a motion to vacate the chair, perhaps as soon as next month. This could be gamesmanship, a bluff to make Ryan feel pressured to step aside. But with a sudden, pervasive sense that Ryan might be ready to leave anyway, a motion to vacate would make sense as a test of his desire to stay on the job.
Either way, the convergence of these realizations—Ryan wanting to retire after 2018, and a possible threat to his speakership even sooner—has sparked a flurry of activity in the offices of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the two most likely successors to Ryan. Both believed Ryan would leave late next year and were therefore planning their next steps at an appropriately deliberate pace. This has abruptly changed: According to multiple GOP sources, both McCarthy and Scalise have taken recent meetings with members loyal to them who have been eager to strategize about life after Ryan. There is little chance Scalise runs against McCarthy, but the whip—knowing McCarthy lacked the votes to become speaker in 2015, prompting Ryan to accept the job—is taking careful stock of the conference, preparing to launch his own candidacy should McCarthy stumble a second time.
The one person who can keep these dominos from falling, at least in the near term, is Trump. The president and the speaker have been a better pairing than anyone could have imagined a year ago, considering Ryan abandoned the GOP nominee during the home stretch of the 2016 campaign. The speaker has kept shoulder-to-shoulder with the White House at moments of vulnerability, knowing Trump can shield him—and his members—from the fury of the right. If the president endorses whatever grotesque legislative meatball comes out of the House in the coming weeks—publicly and unambiguously—it’s impossible to see Ryan facing any real threat. If the president distances himself from the speaker, however, the flood gates could open—and quickly. Conservatives, having whispered in the president’s ear about Ryan not sharing his interests, will be watching carefully for cues. So too will Steve Bannon, who has been conspicuous this year in holding his fire on Ryan, an old nemesis, while laying waste to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. Bannon and Meadows, a pair of disruptive forces, have spent the past year keeping Ryan’s blood out of the water—but in the unlikely scenario that Trump suddenly sours on the House speaker, they will be inviting the sharks to dinner.
Underscoring all of this palace intrigue are some strange realities—such as the fact that Ryan’s survival as speaker might require cover from the very president who once believed that Ryan was trying to sabotage his presidential campaign. Or the notion that Ryan, should he secure his final year in office, will use it to pursue the type of dramatic, politically risky entitlement reforms that Trump explicitly ruled out while running for president. Perhaps no piece of irony is more striking, or effective in capturing this volatile period of Republican history, than the juxtaposition between Ryan celebrating his dream of rewriting the tax code—while hearing of renewed threats to his speakership.
Ryan nearly walked away from Congress once before. It was November 2012, after Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama, and the would-be vice president found himself despondent and homesick. Ryan told his wife, Janna, that he was considering retirement. That’s when Boehner called. The speaker, concerned about the stability of his conference, could not afford to lose Ryan; he promised the influential Budget Committee chairman a waiver so he could lead the panel for another two years. Ryan agreed, and as the sting of 2012 receded, he began to map out his political future—and his exit strategy from Congress. Having run and lost a national campaign, Ryan rejected pleas to consider his own presidential prospects; instead, he set his sights on the Ways and Means Committee. The chairmanship, which he had long viewed as a dream job, would open after 2014, and Ryan saw it as the perfect perch from which to both pursue his longstanding policy goals and influence the direction of the national party in 2016. Ryan had it all figured out, according to interviews at the time with his friends, family and staff: He would chair the committee, help a newly elected Republican president write a sweeping overhaul of the tax code, and then ride off into the sunset.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Less than a year into Ryan’s Ways and Means tenure, Boehner decided to call it quits. He had asked his protégé several times over the previous year—since the primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor—to succeed him as the speaker. “I gave him the Heisman every time,” Ryan told POLITICO. The Ways and Means chairman was content to support his friend McCarthy. But the Freedom Caucus wasn’t. Jordan and Meadows, concerned that McCarthy, a pragmatic Californian, would lead no differently than Boehner, made him a series of offers—their support in exchange for something from him. One of the proposals called for process reforms, including a drastic restructuring of the Steering Committee, which decides committee assignments and chairmanships. Another, more politically explicit offer, promised McCarthy the group’s votes if he could make either Jordan or Meadows the majority leader. When McCarthy bristled, suggesting he couldn’t possibly deliver what they wanted, the group told him he wouldn’t have enough votes on the House floor to become speaker—even if he had already scored an overwhelming majority in the closed-door conference election.
Hours before that private vote was set to occur, McCarthy called Ryan to say he didn’t want the job—and that really, Ryan should take it. He still wasn’t interested. Only after several days of around-the-clock phone calls from prominent Republicans did Ryan open himself to the possibility. He began thinking about his conditions for accepting the job. One was family time on the weekends, which was non-negotiable; another was support from the Freedom Caucus. Ryan had watched Boehner struggle to contain the rebellion after the tea-party wave of 2010; he would not assume the speakership over the objections of the same rambunctious members who had helped drive Boehner from office. By securing their support up front, Ryan hoped to inoculate himself against the inevitable future grumblings from House conservatives.
Some Freedom Caucus members had reservations about Ryan, but others were ecstatic at his willingness to take the job. Unlike with Boehner, they saw the Wisconsinite—an Ayn Rand devotee and fierce critic of the welfare state—as one of their own. He was equally appealing to other factions of the conference—a sober-minded, well-spoken, telegenic leader with policy experience and people skills. After five years of civil war, there was no other figure who could unite the fractured House Republican Conference. Ryan’s colleagues teasingly called him “The Chosen One,” and in late October of 2015, he assumed the speakership.
The cease-fire was short lived. Conservatives say Ryan failed a critical first test just weeks after taking the gavel, when he refused to leverage government funding to impose new restrictions on the nation’s refugee settlement program in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Jordan pleaded with the new speaker to hold out for increased vetting, telling him that it would show Obama and Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid that “there’s a new sheriff in town.” Ryan refused—an original sin that chafes Jordan to this day. As he struggled to adjust to his complex new role—“like Einstein learning to write poetry,” is how one of Ryan’s admirers described it—he committed another strategic error that would prove costly with some of his members: dismissing the reality TV star running for his party’s nomination. In private conversations, Ryan called Trump “a joke” whose penchant for identity politics was dividing the country and dooming the Republican Party’s future. He wasn’t much gentler in public: For most of the campaign, Ryan made it seem he felt honor-bound to denounce the candidate’s latest incendiary remark or antic, as though the two were personally engaged in a tug-of-war for the GOP’s soul.
This annoyed some of Ryan’s members—both pro-Trumpers and others who disliked him but respected the anger he was tapping into. When the speaker initially withheld his support after Trump became the presumptive nominee—then continued to poke at him even after issuing a grudging endorsement—some of Ryan’s colleagues wondered if he was attempting to sabotage the GOP ticket. Ryan made a point, for instance, never to be photographed with Trump—fearful of how it would be used to tarnish his brand, according to multiple sources. But the speaker came to agree that the icy relationship between them was unhelpful to the national party. Under mounting pressure from his members, as well as his longtime friend, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, Ryan offered an olive branch, inviting the GOP nominee to his hometown of Janesville for a Saturday afternoon campaign rally.
All hell broke loose on the evening before the event, when the Washington Post published a decade-old recording of Trump boasting about his sexual exploits—and his ability to grope women because of his celebrity status. It seemed to be the nail in his campaign’s coffin. Ryan immediately disinvited Trump from Janesville, railing to Priebus and other GOP officials about the man he had never trusted or respected in the first place. Feeling validated, and certain that his members were equally outraged, Ryan wanted to take decisive action—even entertaining the idea of withdrawing his endorsement of Trump. On an emergency leadership conference call the weekend of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Ryan floated this idea as House GOP leaders debated how far to distance themselves from Trump. He would cripple their majority, the speaker said; cutting him off might be their best hope of saving the House. It was ultimately McCarthy—who has become Trump’s favored member of the GOP leadership—who talked Ryan down. Withdrawing their support, he said, according to multiple sources familiar with the call, might backfire by hurting their own members. He suggested they cool off and not act on impulse.
Ryan agreed, yet somehow still crossed the line with many House Republicans when he declared—on another conference call the following Monday morning, this time with all Republican members—that he would no longer defend or campaign for Trump. That call, leaked to reporters in real time, lit a fire in the grassroots. Congressional phone lines exploded thereafter, with irate GOP constituents calling for Ryan’s head. Some members began questioning the sustainability of his speakership; in late October 2016, after leaders scheduled Ryan’s speakership nomination, a number of pro-Trump House members urged Ryan to postpone it so they had more time to consider if he should lead the conference. One of those was Rep. Jim Renacci, an establishment-friendly Republican who had long served with Ryan on the Ways and Means Committee. The Ohio Republican started garnering signatures on a secret letter arguing that “the conference is divided” and “there is no reason to hastily hold elections.”
Freedom Caucus members sensed an opportunity. At a secret meeting at Meadows’ downtown D.C. apartment, days before the election, Freedom Caucus board members devised a plan to deny Ryan the 218 votes needed to retain his speakership. The strategy called for Jordan to serve as the “sacrificial lamb,” running against Ryan—not to win, but to keep the speaker from having the votes needed for reelection. The idea was that Ryan, who talked frequently (and annoyingly, to some members) about how he had never wanted the job in the first place, would step aside to avoid the spectacle. Conservatives had already begun searching for a new speaker from outside their narrow ranks—someone who would command the respect of the conference. Rep. Mike Pompeo—then a little-known, dry-witted defense hawk who’d later make friends in high places and become Trump’s CIA director—became their top choice.
As Republicans schemed against their speaker, the underlying assumption was that Trump would lose and the conservative base would be out for blood—that, or Trump would win and kick Ryan to the curb. Either way, he would be finished.
Less than an hour before the polls closed on November 8, 2016, Ryan made the phone call he’d been dreading. With a handful of staffers and family members lingering nearby, Ryan was patched through to senior officials at the RNC in Washington. They had been analyzing voting patterns and running turnout models throughout the day, and were prepared to share their projections with the speaker: Donald Trump was going to go down in flames, earning just 220 electoral votes. Republicans would lose nearly 20 House seats. Democrats would retake control of the United States Senate. Exactly the debacle Ryan had feared.
Stewing inside his team’s war room at the Holiday Inn in Janesville—the site of his own election night party—Ryan could not stomach the thought of working with President Hillary Clinton. That said, he wasn’t exactly thrilled about working with Trump, whose campaign—fueled by anger, resentment and nativism—was, in his view, a rejection of conservatism’s highest ideals. As disappointed as he was about Clinton’s apparent victory, the speaker saw a silver lining: He would seize the occasion of Trump’s defeat—beginning that night—to speak about a return to an inclusive, aspirational, Jack Kemp-inspired “happy warrior” conservatism, and a rejection of Trumpism.