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Don't You (Forget About): Paul Ryan
The erstwhile Speaker of the House aided & abetted Trump.
In the “Don’t You (Forget About)” series, we highlight key early Trumpist figures who would prefer to lurk in the shadows, hoping simple minds might forget their complicity. Today: the former Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
IN 2012, Paul Ryan was the future of the Republican Party. Young, handsome, and fit, straight, white, and male, and brimming with fresh policy ideas to screw the poor and middle class to benefit the rich, he was the paradigmatic 21st century Republican—so much so that Mitt Romney chose the 42-year-old “policy wonk” as his running mate. The duo lost by a mere five million votes.
Three years later, after initial reluctance, Ryan succeeded John Boehner as Speaker of the House. Now he was two heartbeats from the presidency, rather than one. The presidential line of succession is important in understanding Ryan’s complicity in Trump/Russia (of which more shortly).
From a policy perspective, Ryan’s term as Speaker was headlined by the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, a brazen redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the one percent; and the attempt to repeal Obamacare via the American Health Care Act of 2017, which lost by a single vote—John McCain’s famous thumbs down—in the Senate. Ryan pumped iron and crushed on Ayn Rand and was lectured by Jesuits that Christianity was not consistent with his policies, and he laughed when voting to boot millions off their health insurance plans. The irony of his being a beneficiary of the public safety net—he collected Social Security survivor benefits after his father died—while actively attempting to destroy it was often cited as evidence of his hypocrisy.
But it’s what Paul Ryan didn’t do, more than what he did, that calls his patriotism into question.
ON THE NIGHT OF 21 MARCH 2017, the day after the James Comey hearing, Devin Nunes, then the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), was in a car with a staffer when he got an alarming text message. He made the Uber stop, jumped out, and hightailed it to the White House. This began a series of strange events that has never been adequately explained. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Nunes met with Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, two Trump loyalists, who gave him some alarming information. Something about “unmasking.” (This was two weeks after Trump had accused Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower).
The next morning, Nunes held a bizarre press conference. “I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked,” Nunes announced, before leaving to powwow directly with President Trump.
On 23 March, at another bat-shit press conference, Nunes told reporters: “The president didn’t invite me over, I called down there and invited myself because I thought he needed to understand what I say and he needed to get that information,” which was a strange claim, as the White House had given him the information, and not the other way around. Nunes then canceled regular HPSCI meetings, and scrapped a hearing at which Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General who’d warned Trump about Mike Flynn, was set to testify.
From that moment on, Devin Nunes has done everything in his not inconsiderable power to throw water on the Russia investigation. He dispatched HPSCI staffers on a wild goose chase in London, to investigate Christopher Steele. He railed against leaks, against unmasking, against Steele and the dossier. He recused himself from the investigation, but never actually went through with it. He subpoenaed Fusion GPS, in a vain attempt to sully Steele, but stubbornly refused to subpoena Deutsche Bank, the only creditor Trump had been able to procure in recent years. He launched a crusade against the “Uranium One” deal, in a veiled attempt to tarnish Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel. He lobbied for the impeachment of FBI Director Christopher Wray, whom Trump had just appointed a few months earlier. He insisted that there was underhandedness in the Department of Justice, again attempting to taint Mueller. “I hate to use the word corrupt, but they’ve become at least so dirty that who’s watching the watchmen? Who’s investigating these people? There is no one.”
Then, in January 2018, Nunes wrote his infamous memo—a cherry-picked document that attempted to make the case that the FBI had erred in its issue of FISA warrants against Carter Page, or some such thing. The brouhaha about the memo was immense, and when Nunes finally released it to the press—despite DOJ concerns that doing so would jeopardize national security—it succeeded only in showing that Nunes was a living, breathing Obstruction of Justice charge. As Ranking Member of HPSCI Adam Schiff put it: “The Majority voted today on a party-line basis to grant House Members access to a profoundly misleading set of talking points drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI and its handling of the investigation….Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most of Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI….This may help carry White House water, but it is a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals.”
The Nunes memo was supposed to vindicate Trump…and it could not, because it wasn’t a magic spell that made us all go back in time to before the Trump campaign began playing footsie with Moscow. Instead, it established the Congressman who Eric Garland nicknamed “Special Agent Dipshit Cowpoke” as a bad actor—and nothing in the intervening two-and-a-half years has done anything to dispel that conclusion.
After the 2018 Blue Wave, Nunes switched places with Schiff, but even as Ranking Member, he’s been able to hurl obstacles in the path of justice like he’s playing jurisprudential Mario Kart. It’s like Batman having to run a committee which also includes the Joker. To watch Nunes defile and degrade his office, and indeed the very rule of law, by his asinine behavior during the impeachment inquiry is to be certain that he’s one of Trump/Russia’s most contemptible villains—without question, a traitor of the first rank.
What does this have to do with Paul Ryan? As Speaker, Ryan is the one who entrusted the dastardly Nunes with the chairmanship of HPSCI. At any moment, he could have removed him from the post, if not the committee entirely. He did not. To the contrary, Paul Ryan did exactly nothing for two full years, allowing the Nunes farce to continue. The former slunk quietly into the background, abetting Trump with inaction, while the latter made as much noise as possible to deflect attention from Trump/Russia.
Understand: whatever Nunes did, or didn’t do, during those two years, Paul Ryan is ultimately responsible for. By opting to do nothing, Ryan threw in his lot with Trump. Rush, the band who dedicated an album to Ryan’s hero Ayn Rand, put it best: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
AND IT’S NOT LIKE Paul Ryan was unaware of the stench of vodka, borscht, and Putin’s aftershave emanating from Trump Tower. He was caught on tape on 15 June 2016—a month before the Republican National Convention, and a week after the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians—cracking wise with his colleagues in the House GOP leadership, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, about Donald Trump’s ties with Russia:
McCARTHY: There’s two people, I think, Putin pays: [Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump. [laughter] Swear to God.
RYAN: This is an off the record… [laughter] NO LEAKS… [laughter] alright?
RYAN: This is how we know we’re a real family here.
SCALISE: That’s how you know we’re tight.
RYAN: What’s said in the family stays in the family.
The Republicans later claimed they were just joking, citing the laughter and Ryan’s sly nod to the Las Vegas tourism catch phrase. Even so, the banter would not be humorous if it were not grounded in truth.
The more interesting, and more topical, exchange comes earlier in the recording. Ryan is discussing the situation in Ukraine (!) with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Republican Caucus:
RODGERS: I went [to Ukraine] a year ago. It was like, wow. These people are living…they’re on the front lines. They’re fighting for their freedom…their independence.
RYAN: [The Ukrainian Prime Minister] has this really interesting riff about…people have said they have Ukraine fatigue, but it’s really Russia fatigue because what Russia is doing to us [in Ukraine], financing our populists, financing people in our government to undo our government, you know, messing with our oil and gas energy, all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country, they’re just going to roll through us and go to the Baltics and everyone else.
RYAN: So we should not have Ukraine fatigue, we should have Russia fatigue.
RODGERS: Yes! The propaganda…my big takeaway from that trip was just how sophisticated the propaganda…
RYAN: It’s very sophisticated.
RODGERS…coming out of Russia and Putin.
RYAN: Very sophisticated.
RYAN: This isn’t just about Ukraine.
RODGERS: So, yeah, it is a, um…a propaganda war.
RYAN: Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.
RYAN: And guess who’s the only one taking a strong stand against it? We are.
RODGERS: We’re not…we’re not…but, we’re not…
Russia propaganda is no less sophisticated three and a half years later. Ukraine remains on the front lines. But the asymmetrical warfare technique of “financing our populists, financing people in our government to undo our government…all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country” is not confined to Kiev. With the coming of Trump, Washington is also under attack from Russia. The United States, too, suffers from Russia fatigue.
The man—no, the Speaker of the House! one of the Gang of Eight!—who once engaged in a substantive and prescient conversation about Ukraine, US foreign policy, and the sophistication of Russian propaganda, is not ignorant of Trump’s Russia ties. To the contrary.
Why was Ryan silent from 2016-2018? Why is he silent now? Does his silence have anything to do with the Russian hack of the RNC servers? With the NRA funneling money to the GOP? With Maria Butina? With the Kochs? Paul Ryan did not just fail. He did so actively, by his inaction. He is the head lifeguard who saw a man drowning, observed his subordinate lifeguard kicking the drowning man to keep him off the side of the pool…and turned his back and quietly walked away.
PAUL RYAN IS, or used to be, an ambitious politician. He ran as Romney’s #2 with the ostensible goal of one day running as his own #1. He took the Speakership with reluctance. The job was thankless, yes, but it could also potentially pin him down. The Speaker of the House is not, historically, a springboard to the Oval Office. In politics, it is a terminal.
And that’s what makes Ryan’s complicity in Trump/Russia so egregious. His silence was pusillanimous, without question, but it also worked against his own ambitions. As I tweeted in April of 2018, when he was still Speaker:
Observing that the presidency had been hijacked by a money launderer for the Russian mob, who was also an inveterate racist and serial rapist, actively trying to destroy the country—just as he observed Putin try to do in Ukraine, per the 2016 conversation with Rep. Rodgers—Paul Ryan could have done the right thing and agitated for the impeachment of Donald Trump. He could have convinced Pence to resign to avoid prosecution, led a bipartisan majority through the process, and taken the White House himself—all while making his reputation as a true patriot, a hero who held country over party. As president, furthermore, he could have enacted more of his beloved fuck-the-poor policies, gutting still more of the social safety net. Wasn’t that the reason he came to Washington in the first place?
Instead, Paul Ryan allowed Devin Nunes to run haywire, and his own name to be added to the Wikipedia list of invertebrates. He did not run for re-election in 2018, leaving at the tender age of 48 to spend more time with his family—his wife and his three children, ages 17, 16, and 14. (Earlier this year, in another blatant show of his true colors, he joined the board of directors of the Fox Corporation).
But there are problems with that story, too. After raising his family in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, and resisting the urge to relocate them for his two decades in Congress, Paul Ryan finally moved them to DC three months ago—when all three of his kids are in high school. These are not the actions of a selfless family man. The last thing you want to do, as a parent, is relocate your kids halfway through high school. It appears that he left Capitol Hill when he did to distance himself from the Trump White House, in a calculated attempt to salvage what remained of his reputation, and has determined that it’s now safe to return—as when Michael Corleone is recalled from Sicily.
When forced to decide, it seems to me, Paul Ryan chose Washington over the needs of his three kids—although we can’t say for sure, as we were not privy to the conversation around that dinner table. As Ryan himself pointed out, what’s said in the family stays in the family.