Paul Ryan, the top Republican in the U.S. Congress, took the extraordinary step on Monday of distancing himself from 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, 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.”
Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said he would not defend Trump or campaign for him after the uproar over the New York businessman’s sexually aggressive comments that surfaced on Friday.
Ryan’s announcement added to the party’s worst turmoil in decades and reinforced the growing sense of isolation around Trump, who has never previously run for public office.
Clinton has led Trump in most national opinion polls for months and Trump’s 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.
Trump hit back at 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,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Ryan, who had expressed disgust over the tape and canceled a campaign event with Trump over the weekend, did not completely cut ties to Trump. The speaker went back on the Republican conference call later to clarify he was not withdrawing his endorsement.
Many Republican members of Congress are concerned that 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 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 Ryan a rough ride on the call, according to some participants.