Anxiety over Donald Trump spread among congressional Republicans Monday, pushing several to follow House Speaker Paul Ryan's lead and withhold their support from the divisive billionaire. Ryan himself declared there's no point in trying to "fake" party unity.
"If we go forward pretending that we're unified, then we are going to be at half-strength this fall," Ryan told The Journal Times in Racine, Wisconsin, defending his stunning decision last week to refuse to endorse his party's presumptive presidential nominee.
Still, in interviews with home-state reporters Monday, Ryan denounced the idea of any Republican launching a third-party or independent candidacy to challenge Trump, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel it "would be a disaster for our party."
And Ryan said he'd step aside from the House speaker's traditional role as chairman of the Republican National Convention if Trump wants him to, a scenario that Trump left open over the weekend, underscoring the depths of strife now afflicting a GOP divided against itself.
"He's the nominee. I'll do whatever he wants in respect to the convention," Ryan said, striking a conciliatory note.
Ryan's reluctance to endorse the presumed nominee was not a complete surprise, however. As The Christian Science Monitor reported last week:
Ryan himself has been hedging his position for some time. He’s talked about rolling out a personal policy agenda prior to the GOP convention, for instance. He’s denied any interest in serving as a white knight for #NeverTrump forces but remained coy about his plans for 2020 if Trump loses.
In other words, he didn’t run for president this time but he appears to be campaigning hard for the slot of “Mr. Republican,” the face of the party as it has been since it coalesced around a platform of tax cuts and muscular foreign affairs.
Ryan’s problem is that many Republican voters approve of the direction Trump’s taking the party.
Trump himself shrugged off the need for unity heading into the November general election and a likely match-up against Democrat Hillary Clinton, even though that would be the goal in any normal election year after a candidate effectively clinches the nomination, as Trump did last week.
"I think this is a time for unity. And if there's not going to be unity, I think that's OK, too," Trump said on Fox Business Network. "I mean, I'll go out and I think I'll do very well. I think I'm going to win the race either way."
The comments from Ryan and Trump came as both men prepared for a face-to-face meeting Thursday, which Republican leaders hope will begin to mend the fabric of their party. Trump will also meet Thursday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders.
Still, ahead of the meeting, Ryan's negative stance appeared to be providing cover for some vulnerable Republicans who are anxious to distance themselves from Trump and his controversial comments about women, Latinos, prisoners of war and others.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the most endangered Senate Republicans, wrote an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer drawing back from his long-stated intent to back the GOP nominee.
"His vulgarity, particularly toward women, is appalling. His lack of appreciation for constitutional limits on executive powers is deeply concerning.... In short, I find his candidacy highly problematic," Toomey wrote of Trump. "There could come a point at which the differences are so great as to be irreconcilable."
Toomey appeared to be the only Senate Republican running for re-election to publicly step back from plans to vote for Trump. However, other backing has come with little enthusiasm as senators have announced in the same breath plans to skip the July convention in Cleveland.
Party leaders fear Trump's candidacy could cost Republicans control of the Senate. Even in the House, where Republicans command the largest majority in decades and are unlikely to lose control, vulnerable members are visibly nervous.
Several newly elected lawmakers who could face difficulty in November, including Martha McSally of Arizona, Will Hurd of Texas and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, have told local publications they are not ready to back Trump.
Another Republican in a closely divided district, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that he and others were finding it difficult to support Trump given his history of incendiary comments and his own uncertain record as a Republican, including donations to many Democrats, Clinton among them.
"When you're a candidate running for office you don't like to be in a position where you have to put distance between yourself and someone in your own party," Dent said. "But in this case you're compelled to do it because of the nature of these inflammatory statements."
Trump's tendency to shift stances on policy issues, which has troubled conservatives while handing ammunition to Democrats, arose anew Monday as he defended a weekend suggestion that his tax plan could be negotiable. Clinton aides pounced on the issue in a conference call while Trump defended himself, saying, "This is a negotiation."
Ever confident, Trump announced that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former foe but now an enthusiastic supporter, would head his transition team as he heads for the White House after the election.
Another former opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who's been mentioned by Trump as a potential vice presidential pick, issued a statement saying he wasn't interested because Trump "will be best served by a running mate and by surrogates who fully embrace his campaign."
Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi and Jill Colvin contributed.