Mark Leibovich’s New York Times Magazine profile of outgoing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan is essentially a series of attempts to get Ryan (R-Wis.) to account for his regular punts on President Trump’s tweets. And it’s great.
Over and over again, Leibovich lays bare the impossible choice Republicans face between saying what they actually believe is right and moral, and staying in the good graces of a president who can make their lives hell with just a few more thumb taps. Nearly every Republican has fallen in line; Ryan, in many ways, has set the tone.
But in their long, rather-entertaining exchanges, the last one stands out. It’s when Ryan builds out an argument he made for the first time publicly just a couple weeks ago — the idea that Trump is the world’s more powerful social media troll, and he’s totally pulling one over on all of us by just saying stuff.
Here’s relevant section No. 1:
I mentioned something else Trump had tweeted that morning: that he planned to invite Putin to Washington for “our second meeting.”
“He’s just trolling you guys,” Ryan said, unveiling a new line to explain away Trump. This was a twist on Ryan’s go-to evasion of dismissing the medium of “tweets,” rather than condemning their words or intent. It is also an implicit declaration from the speaker of the House that the president’s words are not to be taken seriously because his goal is to merely troll. Therefore, any reaction by “you guys” reflects a lack of judgment and proportion: He is essentially chiding people for allowing themselves to be distracted.
And here’s the coup de grace, where the two of them talk about Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki:
“I thought it was a really bad press conference,” Ryan said. He said again that Trump just loves to troll “you guys.” I asked him if he derived any enjoyment from watching “you guys” being so expertly trolled. Not really, Ryan said. “I don’t think like that, and I don’t act like that,” he said. Trump “just wants to see your heads explode, and he just wants you to spend the next 12 hours talking about this.”
This struck me as Ryan’s best attempt to explain Trumpism, if not one of those “Where we are as a country” moments that seem to occur every day now, or every minute on Twitter. But it’s still useful to lay down a marker sometimes. We have, in this case, a Republican speaker of the House explaining away a president’s intentions as nothing more than an effort to get a rise out of people.
I asked Ryan who the “you guys” being trolled were.
“The country,” he said, chuckling.
“The people who don’t like him,” he clarified. “The non-Trumpers.”
I asked Ryan if he was one of the “you guys.”
“Sometimes,” he said, “yeah.”
Leibovich got at this a little bit, but it’s worth emphasizing just what Ryan is saying here: He’s arguing that the president of the United States is saying, doing and speculating about things he doesn’t believe to elicit a reaction.
In other words, he’s saying Trump is being dishonest.
That’s undoubtedly true, but it’s actually pretty remarkable for someone in Ryan’s position to admit it. I have no doubt that much of Trump’s Twitter persona is about provoking and trying to get people to overreact. It’s been his entire M.O. since he became a public figure so many decades ago. But inherent in this approach is a real brand of dishonesty that Ryan seems to be glossing over. It’s also playing games with something that’s extremely serious: the very American political system.
Ryan’s intent here, as usual with Trump’s tweets, is to minimize them — to pretend they aren’t actually presidential statements, despite the White House saying they are. But even if you set aside the question of when we’re supposed to take Trump literally and when we’re not — which becomes an unwinnable game for everyone involved except Trump, who can have it both ways whenever he pleases — Ryan is still accusing the president of being what’s colloquially known as a B.S. artist.
That appears to be the best explanation he’s landed upon, after all these months. It might actually be the most honest explanation, but that doesn’t make it a good one.