WASHINGTON (AP) — The escalating clash between Paul Ryan and Donald Trump is prompting warnings of retaliation against the speaker from rank-and-file House Republicans, suggesting a potential rebellion like the one that drove his predecessor into retirement and that could jeopardize his own hold on the post.
After months of a relationship that devolved from cool to frigid, Ryan told GOP lawmakers this week that he won't defend Trump or campaign with him and urged them to do whatever it takes to win re-election. That sparked a barrage of venomous tweets from Trump and warnings from some House Republicans that they might oppose the re-election of Ryan, R-Wis., as speaker.
"Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan isn't for Trump, then I'm not for Paul Ryan," Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said Wednesday on Twitter.
Bridenstine is a conservative and a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which often bucks leadership. He backed Ryan when the House elected him speaker last October.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who also supported Ryan then, hinted in an interview with The Associated Press that he might not favor keeping Ryan in the House's top job.
"I never doubted he should be speaker. However, if he can't prevent himself from panicking and helping the enemy in a situation like this, well, then we'll find out," Rohrabacher said Monday.
During a conference call in which Ryan told House Republicans of his plan, Rohrabacher called Ryan's decision "cowardly" and demanded that party leaders stop their "Trump can't win defeatism," according to three participants in that call.
Ryan's Monday conference call followed the release of a 2005 video showing Trump making vulgar comments about how he sexually pursued women. Ryan did not withdraw his endorsement of Trump, but said he will spend the remaining weeks before Election Day working solely to protect his party's control of the House.
"Speaker Ryan is fighting to ensure we hold a strong majority next Congress, and he is always working to earn the respect and support of his colleagues," AshLee Strong, his spokeswoman, said Wednesday.
Ryan's tactic has cheered many GOP lawmakers nervous that Trump's flagging candidacy could cost them their own jobs. But it has infuriated other Republicans and conservatives in and out of Congress, especially Trump's die-hard backers — who consider Ryan's decision a betrayal that will weaken Trump's chances of winning.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Ryan was under pressure from both Trump supporters in the House and lawmakers in districts where the presidential candidate is doing poorly and who "wanted some kind of cover or absolution" to abandon him.
"There wouldn't even be a vote for speaker if we ended up losing 30 seats or 35 seats," said King.
Ryan, still only 46, was his party's 2012 vice presidential candidate and many think he could run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020 or beyond. Losing an election for the speakership could be a blow to any loftier political ambitions.
Ryan succeeded former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who retired last October after it became clear that opposition from conservatives meant he did not have the votes to retain his job.
The warnings by Bridenstine and Rohrabacher are significant because Ryan may not have many votes to lose when lawmakers decide who will be speaker in next year's Congress.
It has long appeared likely that the GOP will retain its House majority, but that now seems less sure as Trump's campaign faces major struggles. Democratic House gains appear certain, but Democrats would have to pick up 30 seats to win control.
House Republicans meet after the November elections to select their nominee for speaker. Ryan would then need 218 votes — a majority of the chamber's 435 members — to become speaker when the full House votes in January.
There are currently 246 House Republicans, plus a vacant seat they seem likely to retain.
But that number will likely shrink after Election Day, with GOP moderates among the likeliest to lose. That means a greater proportion of conservatives, some of whom are hostile to established GOP leaders, and indicates that Ryan may not be able to afford losing much support.
On Wednesday, Trump seemed to suggest without evidence that Ryan and other Republicans are involved in a "sinister deal" against him.
"There is a whole deal going on and we're going to figure it out. I always figure things out. But there's a whole sinister deal going on," Trump said while campaigning in Ocala, Florida.
Trump criticized Ryan for not showing support of his performance in the second presidential debate.