WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Mr Paul Ryan, the top Republican in the US Congress, took the extraordinary step on Monday (Oct 10) of distancing himself from Mr Donald Trump, stirring a backlash from some lawmakers and deepening a crisis over his party’s struggling presidential nominee.
In a conference call with congressional Republicans, Mr Ryan all but conceded that Democrat Hillary Clinton was likely to win the White House on Nov 8 and said he would put his full energy into preserving Republican majorities in Congress so as not to give her a “blank check.”
Mr Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said he would not defend Mr Trump or campaign for him after the uproar over the New York businessman’s sexually aggressive comments that surfaced on Friday.
Mr Ryan, who had expressed disgust over the tape and cancelled a campaign event with Mr Trump over the weekend, did not completely cut ties with Mr Trump. The speaker went back on the Republican conference call later to clarify he was not withdrawing his endorsement.
But his announcement added to the party’s worst turmoil in decades and reinforced the growing sense of isolation around Mr Trump, who has never previously run for public office.
Mrs Clinton has led Mr Trump in most national opinion polls for months and his poll numbers have begun to drop further since the emergence on Friday of a video from 2005 showing the former reality TV star bragging crudely about groping women and making unwanted sexual advances.
Mr Trump hit back at Mr Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2012, who has frequently been critical of him. “Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee,” he wrote on Twitter.
Many Republican members of Congress are concerned that Mr Trump’s chaotic campaign could ruin their chances of holding their majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate in the November election and could inflict long-term damage on the party.
During a weekend dominated by criticism of Mr Trump over the lewd remarks, a string of members of Congress, governors and other prominent Republicans called on him to drop out of the race.
House Republicans gave Mr Ryan a rough ride on the call, according to some participants. “There was an undeniable opposition to the speaker’s tepid support of our nominee,” said US Representative Scott DesJarlais, a Trump supporter, in a comment passed on by an aide.
Many other lawmakers, some of whom did not want to be named publicly criticising the speaker, said members frequently told Mr Ryan on the call to stand by Mr Trump.
Nonetheless, nearly half of all 331 incumbent Republican senators, Congress members and governors have condemned Mr Trump’s remarks, and roughly one in 10 has called on him to drop out of the race, according to a Reuters review of official statements and local news coverage.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus used an afternoon conference call with RNC members to emphasize there was no rift with Mr Trump and that the committee, the party’s leadership and fundraising arm, still backed the nominee, two RNC members who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
RNC STILL ON BOARD
“Any suggestion that the RNC isn’t fully supporting the Trump-Pence ticket is wrong,” one RNC member said, describing the message. “We are fully on board. We are going to devote every ounce of effort and resource into helping the Trump-Pence ticket win and all the other candidates up and down the ballot.”
Any attempt to replace Trump on the ballot this close to Election Day would face huge legal and logistical hurdles.
A defiant Trump went on the offensive in a vicious presidential debate on Sunday, saying Mrs Clinton, a former secretary of state, would go to jail if he were president and attacking her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for his treatment of women.
The debate, the second of three before the vote, was remarkable for the brutal nature of the exchanges between the two.
Mr Trump stayed on the attack on Monday, describing Mr Bill Clinton as “a predator” and saying: “If they want to release more tapes saying inappropriate things, we’ll continue to talk about Bill and Hillary Clinton doing inappropriate things. There are so many of them.”
“She goes out and says: ‘I love women, I’m going to help women.’ She’s a total hypocrite,” he told supporters in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
Mrs Clinton accused Mr Trump of brushing off criticism of his comments about women. “On Friday, the whole world heard him talking about the terrible way he treats women. And last night when he was pressed about how he behaves, he just doubled down on his excuse that it’s just locker room banter,” she told a rally at Wayne State University in Detroit.
The television audience for the debate fell sharply from their first, record-breaking encounter in September.
Nielsen data supplied by CNN for 10 broadcast and cable channels on Monday showed that 63.6 million Americans tuned into the 90-minute debate on Sunday, well below the record 84 million that watched the first face-off.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll released on Monday showed Mrs Clinton increasing her lead. The survey, conducted after the video release but before the debate, showed Mrs Clinton with 46 per cent support among likely voters in a four-way matchup including two minor party candidates, compared with 35 per cent for Mr Trump.
The Reuters/Ipsos State of the Nation project released on Monday estimated that Mrs Clinton had at least a 95 per cent chance of winning the 270 Electoral College votes needed to become president. The polling did not capture reaction to Mr Trump’s performance in Sunday’s debate or the release of the Friday videotape.