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Paul Ryan must address his Trump problem

Paul Ryan, House Speaker
Mark Wilson | Getty Images
Paul Ryan, House Speaker

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is the second most powerful figure in American government. Having worked for the House Democratic leadership under Speakers beginning with Tip O'Neill, I know better than many the balancing act Ryan must achieve between the interests of our country, the Republican Party, and his House Republican Conference.

Ryan has had a Trump problem for many months, but when Donald Trump said in Wednesday's presidential debate that he was not ready to state whether he would accept the results of the election, he was precipitating a major crisis for Ryan and other Republicans in the House and Senate.

Ryan is a highly principled conservative faced with a nominee who repeatedly violates core principles of true conservatism. He is a genuinely serious man trapped by his party's standard-bearer, who regularly says things that are neither true nor serious. He is a man of deep faith confronted by a presidential candidate who appears on tape bragging that he committed sexual aggression that is anathema to all religions, whose defense is that he was lying when he bragged about abusing women.

Considering the competing interests he must juggle as Speaker, in my view Ryan has acted intelligently and honorably up to this point. He has made his doubts about Donald Trump clear, refused to defend Trump on matters he finds disagreeable or reprehensible, and said that he will vote for the nominee of his party to be president.

It is easy for columnists and editorial boards to demand that Ryan completely renounce Trump and announce he cannot in conscience vote for him. But it is excruciatingly hard for a Speaker to go against a presidential nominee of his own party as the presidency, control of both houses of Congress and a Supreme Court majority hang in the balance.

"If Trump was honorable, smart, and interested in advancing the interests of his party, he would never have put Republican leaders and members in the House and Senate in the position of having to choose between his candidacy and the fundamental values of our country."

John F. Kennedy wrote a book that should be required reading for all students. In "Profiles in Courage," JFK offered sketches of legislators who risked their careers on matters of high principle. Many politicians quote "Profiles in Courage" but in our age few live up to it. Would I offer such advice to the Speaker, to say he cannot vote for Trump, if I were working for House Republican leaders today? Honestly, until this third presidential debate, when Trump stated twice that he might not accept the results of the presidential election, probably not.

There are two fundamental issues about Trump's campaign and American democracy that all congressional leaders, including Ryan, should address forcefully, unequivocally and decisively.

First, they should all denounce the attempts by Russia to employ espionage to influence and discredit the American elections. It is the overwhelming view throughout the American intelligence and counterintelligence communities that Russian intelligence, almost certainly at the direction of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, is engaged in a systematic and aggressive campaign to influence and undermine confidence in our elections and our democracy.

Second, when Trump says he might not respect and accept result of the presidential election, he is acting in a way that is alien to core notions of Americanism. He is violating cardinal rules and traditions that have been accepted by every president and major party nominee since the founding of our Republic. When Trump attacks the very legitimacy of our elections by claiming they are rigged by an international conspiracy, and when he threatens the peaceful transfer of power that is a necessity of our democracy, he crosses a bright red, white and blue line that patriots of all parties should fiercely defend.

If Trump was honorable, smart, and interested in advancing the interests of his party, he would never have put Republican leaders and members in the House and Senate in the position of having to choose between his candidacy and the fundamental values of our country. Yet Trump has done this, time and time again, as recently as the third presidential debate on Wednesday night.

There comes a time and place when a profile in courage is called for.

For Speaker Ryan, the moment has arrived to publicly and clearly state that it is unacceptable for any nominee to refuse to denounce espionage directed against our democracy by a hostile foreign power, to promote fantasies of global conspiracy against his election, and to refuse to fully accept the results of national elections and the peaceful transfer of power that is the first principle of our democracy.

Commentary by Brent Budowsky, who was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill's Contributors blog.

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