Paul Ryan downplays upcoming meeting with Donald Trump

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at Georgetown University April 27, 2016 in Washington, DC. Ryan held a town hall with members of the millennial generation as part of the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan dropped a bombshell last week when he refused to back Donald Trump. This week, he’s moving to pick up the pieces.

In private and in public, Ryan is sending the message his party wants to hear: The GOP will be united this fall. In a private meeting in his office Wednesday, Ryan told his colleagues who support Trump that his high-profile sit-down with the billionaire businessman Thursday would be the start of a continual dialogue between the speaker’s office and the presidential campaign, sources said.

Speaking to the full House GOP Conference in the basement of the Capitol, Ryan suggested that the party’s focus this fall will be on defeating Hillary Clinton — not the internal GOP bloodbath. And in his public rhetoric, Ryan is signaling he’ll likely back Trump, just not now.

But according to several allies of the speaker, Ryan wants some assurances for himself. He wants to ensure Trump will not hurt his House Republican majority by undermining his colleagues and the carefully crafted election-year agenda the GOP is painstakingly trying to create. He wants Trump to communicate a positive vision, avoid using foul and incendiary rhetoric and keep the party united on its core conservative principles. And as Ryan told reporters Wednesday, he just wants to “get to know” Trump.

Yet, his strategy — to publicly announce last week he won’t yet back Trump — also has put Ryan on the firing line, including among his own members who say they were blindsided that the leader of their party undermined their presumptive nominee just as the GOP was trying to heal after a divisive primary.

Ryan’s revelation to CNN’s Jake Tapper that he was “just not ready” to support Trump dominated headlines and put a spotlight on the rift between the real estate mogul and his party. The meeting Thursday will either begin to heal that divide — or deepen it further.

“Well it sure doesn’t make it look like we’re all on the same page, does it?” Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, said of Ryan’s public stand. “What’s the matter with saying, ‘I disagree with him on this and that but we’re all wearing the same jersey. So guess what? We want to win the game, and we go have a fight in the locker room.'”

Asked if Ryan’s comments bothered him, Amodei said: “Yes, it does. I’m trying to figure out what the upside is.”

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, a friend of Ryan’s, was surprised by the speaker’s lack of endorsement.

“It just seemed like he could have said, “I”m going to support whoever our nominee is that comes out of Cleveland,” Westmoreland said. “Why do you want to make mad who you are trying to go into a room and negotiate with?”

Thursday’s meeting at Republican National Committee headquarters will kick off with a private session between Trump, Ryan and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus before other senior House GOP leaders are invited to attend. Trump will then head down the street to the National Republican Senatorial Committee to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his top lieutenants and other select lawmakers.

McConnell’s response to Trump differed from Ryan’s, as the Kentucky Republican put out a statement backing the billionaire shortly after Trump became the presumptive nominee.

McConnell told reporters this week that Trump could be “competitive” in the fall, a show of support from the party leader.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who has not yet said she’ll back Trump, said she has a point to make with the front-runner during the Thursday meeting.

“The other thing is the tone that he has had,” Capito said. “I’m going to express that I don’t think that’s a productive tone for the rest of the campaign, and I think it would affect the intensity in which people campaign for him.”

Others want to bring up other pressing matters, including ensuring that Trump helps their party keep control of the Senate majority.

“It’s certainly at the top of my list,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the majority whip, said of maintaining power in the chamber. Asked how Trump could help, Cornyn said: “Well, he could run and win.”

Indeed, as Trump heads to Capitol Hill, part of his goal is to reassure party leaders about his own campaign — and his ability to defeat Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.

On the Hill, some Republicans are starting to warm up to Trump — including ones running in tough races.

“I’ve always said I will support the Republican nominee,” said Rep. Joe Heck, who is running for the open Nevada Senate seat long occupied by the retiring Democratic leader, Harry Reid. “I certainly don’t agree with how (Trump) talks about about Hispanics, or women or minority voters. But when you look at eight years of failed Obama-Reid policies of languishing economic growth and stagnant wages, anybody who wants to restore America’s greatness and bring back jobs — I’m for.”

Trump supporters on Capitol Hill say if Republicans like Heck can back Trump, the speaker should, too.

“Clearly if Speaker Ryan does not endorse, and I don’t think that’s gonna happen at all, that would make it more difficult,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, a top Trump backer. “So today what I heard in his call for unity is that we will go through a process. I hope it’s tomorrow and if not a week from tomorrow or two weeks from tomorrow. But we have six months to go.”

Already, other meetings between Trump and other House factions are in the works, including with the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Many conservatives expect that group and others to get behind Trump. The longer Ryan holds out, the more isolated he could become in his conference.

At a private meeting that lasted about 15 minutes in the speaker’s office Wednesday, Ryan and Trump supporters — including Collins, Reps. Renee Elmers of North Carolina, Rep. Scott Desjarlais of Tennessee and Duncan Hunter of California — all made clear the need for a continued outreach between the two camps, according to people familiar with the meeting. And Ryan continued to preach party unity, as he did to reporters earlier Wednesday.

“What we’re trying to do is be as constructive as possible by having a real unification,” Ryan said at a morning news conference. “I said this the other day — to pretend that we are unified as a party after coming through a very bruising primary that just ended like a week ago — to pretend we are unifying without actually unifying then we go into fall at half-strength. This election is too important to go into an election at half-strength.”

Trump’s detractors on Capitol Hill believe Ryan has provided cover to his colleagues in tough races by showing some distance from the candidate.

Asked whom he would vote for in November, Rep. Carlos Curbelo — one of the most endangered House Republicans in the country — said it wouldn’t be Trump or Clinton.

“It’s very early — we’ll see. I think there are going to be a lot of candidates on the ballot as there typically are every year. … There’s typically 10 on the Florida ballot.”

Curbelo added, “I’m very grateful for the speaker for doing this.”

“I believe the speaker struck the right tone the other day when he made those comments,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania, a moderate in his conference who has yet to back Trump. “And I think he made those comments because he’s a very principled guy. He believes passionately in many issues and I think, like me, he needs a lot more clarification about where Donald Trump is on a lot of the big issues.”

But to the growing number of Hill Republicans willing to back Trump, the longer the speaker holds out, the harder it will become to win in the fall. And after Thursday’s meeting, patience will wear thin among many in his party.

“I believe he’ll get there,” Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pennsylvania, a Trump backer, said of Ryan.

And if he doesn’t? “Well the risk of not getting behind the nominee is that the American people will feel what they’re already saying: that Washington doesn’t get it; they’re not listening to us; they’re disconnected. And that can’t be the message back to the American people.”

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