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House Speaker Paul Ryan Prepares For Challenges After Election Day


Paul Ryan is in a tough spot. As the Republican speaker of the House, he's tasked with preserving his party's majority in next month's election, and he's trying to do it while distancing himself from Donald Trump. Paul Ryan has abandoned any effort to campaign for the Republican presidential nominee, and Trump has strongly criticized him for it. For a look at the challenges facing the speaker, who has now been doing the job for just about one year, we're joined by NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Hi.


SIEGEL: The speaker decided to distance himself from Trump after the "Access Hollywood" tape became public. He said he would no longer campaign for or defend Trump, but he did not unendorse Trump. What's been the impact of his decision?

DAVIS: You know, the speaker's taken a hit, no question. The most immediate impact has been on his own personal popularity, which has fallen. It's also put him at odds with a majority of Republican voters. More Republicans say that Trump is a better reflection of their own views and that they trust him more to lead the party. You know, Ryan has also aggravated some of his own members inside Congress. A lot of the rank and file say maybe he shouldn't have done this, and he should have just stayed out of it.

SIEGEL: Trump has criticized Ryan repeatedly on Twitter. He's called the speaker disloyal. He said he doesn't know how to win elections. He's even suggested that he is, by default, aiding Hillary Clinton's camp. How does Ryan respond to all that?

DAVIS: You know, for the most part, he has just ignored it. He has not responded to any of these attacks. The one exception is that the speaker did publicly dispute Trump's assertions that the election could somehow be rigged. He said that is not true and that he has confidence in the - in the integrity of our election system. But he's not in hiding. He's out on the campaign trail. He's going to visit 17 states this month. And one of the things Ryan allies point to is - they say, look, he's still really popular in places Donald Trump is not. He's campaigning in places like South Florida for Republican Carlos Cabello and in the suburbs of Chicago for congressmen - like for Congressman Bob Dold. So he can go where Trump can't, and people say that's a good sign for him.

SIEGEL: House Republicans are expected to lose seats in November. Will Ryan still have the support to be speaker if the party loses say 10, 20 seats?

DAVIS: You know, right now, it's a cautious yes. The sharpest criticism coming from Ryan is coming from outside the building - a lot of it from media criticism from places like Breitbart and commentators like Sean Hannity. But no actual House Republican lawmaker has come forward as a possible challenger. He still has more friends than enemies inside the building, but, yes, if this is a much narrower majority after Election Day, he may face a challenge.

SIEGEL: He, of course, ran for vice president four years ago. He's been seen as a possible presidential nominee someday. But is the Republican Party that he epitomizes the very party that Donald Trump has run roughshod over all year?

DAVIS: Well, this is the existential question of 2016. You know, when Donald Trump became the nominee, Paul Ryan said he would unite the wings - the Ryan wing and the Trump wing of the party. Well, that didn't happen, and he's all but conceded he does not believe Trump can win. When I talk to Ryan allies, they say the election results will tell the story. And they believe they'll keep the House and that will give strength to the Ryan wing.

SIEGEL: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thank you.

DAVIS: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.