WASHINGTON (AFP) - Donald Trump reversed course Friday (Aug 5) and endorsed House Speaker Paul Ryan for re-election, seeking to end deep divisions within the Republican Party and stem his presidential campaign's bleeding after several self-inflicted wounds.
Trump also threw his support behind Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, two lawmakers facing tough re-election fights, as he pressed for party members to overcome differences.
"We need unity. We have to win this election," Trump told a rally in Ryan's home state of Wisconsin, as he stressed that an inclusive, "big tent" Republican Party is the only way to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in November's general election.
"In our shared mission to make America great again, I support and endorse our Speaker of the House Paul Ryan," he said, to cheers from the Green Bay crowd.
"He's a good man and he's a good guy," Trump added, as he gave a thumbs up sign. "We may disagree on a couple of things but mostly we agree."
Trump triggered a furore 72 hours earlier when he told The Washington Post he was "not quite" ready to endorse Ryan in his upcoming primary, an extraordinary rebuke to the party's top elected official.
"I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country," Trump said Tuesday of Ryan, who faces a challenge by a conservative insurgent in the Aug 9 Wisconsin primary.
"We need very, very strong leadership. And I'm just not quite there yet," Trump said.
On Friday Trump also expressed support for McCain, saying he holds him "in the highest esteem" and praised his lengthy service to the United States, a further effort at damage control.
Ryan and McCain had both spoken out against Trump's startling denigration of the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in action in Iraq, and Trump's refusal to back their re-election bids smacked of vindictiveness to many.
But with Trump slipping in the polls against Clinton, and many Republicans aghast at their nominee's behaviour over the last week, the business mogul sought to close ranks.
And while Trump reiterated his call to change a "rigged political system" that works only for political insiders, he made a pragmatic recognition that Republican cooperation in Washington is vital.
"We have to unite, remember that," he said. "But I need a Republican Senate and a House to accomplish all of the changes that we have to make."