When Will a Republican Who's Staying in the Game Speak Out Against Trump?

The Speaker of the House joins the chorus of vocal Republicans who has one foot out the door

Paul Ryan and Donald Trump Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX Shutterstock, REX Shutterstock

President Trump has rendered the Republican party unrecognizable to many Americans, and with each scandal for which he does not face consequences, the man who just accused Canada of burning the White House down only grows more powerful. The bounds of Trump's executive privilege have been drawn into sharp focus recently. Last week, he enacted a controversial and possibly illegal trade policy, and in response to the ongoing Mueller investigation, both Trump and his legal team have argued that the president is above the law. Though Republicans have spent the past 16 months doing everything they can to avoid addressing the president's indiscretions, at this point it would seem hard to deny that the president's actions are not only not in America's best interest, but flat-out un-American.

This hasn't stopped Republicans from either holding their tongues or tripping over themselves trying to justify the president's wild assertions. When Sen. Ted Cruz – whose wife Trump has insulted, whose father Trump has implicated in the Kennedy assassination – was asked if he believes the president can pardon himself, Cruz paused for 18 seconds before offering that he is "withholding judgement." He later posted a convoluted Twitter thread breaking down the potential legality of a presidential self-pardon, without condemning the idea.

But not all conservatives are withholding judgement on issues such as the president's ability to pardon himself, his steadfast insistence that his campaign was illegally spied on by the Obama administration or a number of controversial policy measures enacted in recent weeks. One of the most surprising Republican voices to speak up is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who on Wednesday joined Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell in dismissing the idea of a self-pardon as ridiculous. "I don’t know the technical answer to that question, but I think obviously the answer is he shouldn’t," Ryan told reporters. "And no one is above the law."

Saying publicly that the president is not above the law is a pretty low bar for praise, but as most Republicans' feet stay on the ground, any high-ranking resistance to Trump's delusions is noteworthy. The wildest delusion of Trump's presidency – a particularly high bar to clear – may be his repeated insistence that his campaign was illegally spied upon by the Obama administration. The claim has been debunked thoroughly, and last week Republican congressman Trey Gowdy said on Fox News that after being briefed by the Justice Department on the FBI's use of an informant in investigating the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, he was even "more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got."

Gowdy's defense of the FBI drew the ire of Trump Republicans, but not Paul Ryan, who on Wednesday said he agreed with the South Carolina congressman "Chairman Gowdy’s initial assessment is accurate, but we have more digging to do," said Ryan, who was also present at last week's briefing.

More worrisome to Republicans than conspiracy theories or claims of unbridled executive privilege have been the president's recent policy maneuvers. His decision last week to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the EU was rebuked by everyone from the Koch brothers, to Republican lawmakers like Orrin Hatch, Ben Sasse and Bob Corker, to the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal, which wrote that Trump has revealed he's not a genius dealmaker, but "merely an old-fashioned protectionist." The paper followed its criticism of Trump's trade policy on Tuesday with an editorial denouncing the administration's decision to force energy companies to buy from coal and nuclear power companies, which is precisely the kind of anti-free-market meddling conservatives tend to abhor.

Particularly incensed by the tariff decision was Corker, who tweeted that he planned to rally fellow Republican lawmakers to fight Trump's policies.

Corker is now attempting to pass legislation that would challenge the president's authority to impose the tariffs, and has said that he has the support of "a large number" of Senate Republicans. On Wednesday, Trump called Corker in an effort to convince him to back down, but Corker wasn't having it. "I am a United States senator, and I have responsibilities and I'm going to continue to carry them out," he told CNN.

But what Corker, Gowdy and Ryan have in common is that they are not seeking reelection this November. Neither is Republican House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, who told Bloomberg Wednesday that he is "dumbfounded" by the president's trade policy, and that he "can’t be silent and complicit in this." Would the congressman from Texas have said this if, like Ted Cruz, he was going to spend the summer campaigning for his job in a deep-red, pro-Trump state?

Though it may appear the Republican party is beginning to cleave into more clearly defined pro- and anti-Trump factions, it can't be ignored that the leaders of the latter group won't be in politics a year from now. The question is whether they'll have been able to build enough of a foundation on which others can voice their opposition to Trump's irresponsible decisions, or whether the party will simply consolidate under Trump's wing as soon as the dissenters are out of office. Considering Paul Ryan and his suddenly outspoken colleagues waited until they knew they weren't seeking reelection to defy the president, the latter is probably more likely.