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Ryan undercuts Trump on Russia at fraught moment

Paul Ryan has spent much of the past year-and-a-half biting his tongue as Donald Trump totally upends his party. Now the outgoing speaker is contradicting the president on the issue he obsesses over most: the Russia investigation.

The Wisconsin Republican gingerly undercut a core Trump talking point during a press conference Wednesday, arguing that he had seen “no evidence” to back Trump’s assertion that the FBI wrongfully planted a spy in his campaign. Ryan also panned Trump’s argument that he has the power to pardon himself.

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“Obviously the answer is he shouldn’t and no one is above the law,” Ryan said.

Ryan’s pushback, delicate as it was, is risky. When House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) first dismissed Trump’s “spygate” theory last week, Trump allies pummeled him for days. Ryan’s comments, and his subsequent defense of Gowdy, is already igniting the ire of the president’s most ardent defenders.

And it comes amid a simmering debate among House Republicans over whether the retiring speaker should remain in the job through the election, as he insists, or whether the conference should move on and select a permanent leader.

“Once again, this is Speaker Ryan being unhelpful to the Republican efforts to keep control of the House and pick up Senate seats,” said one former top Trump campaign official who keeps in touch with Trump. “He needs to go… now.”

Ryan isn’t the only Republican checking Trump on Russia matters. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week that Trump shouldn’t pardon himself. And a number of Republican senators and House members have joined Ryan in saying that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be left alone to do his job.

The difference, however, is that Ryan is now in a perilous position. His critics have flirted with the idea of pushing him out of the speaker’s office early, though few think that’s likely to happen. And Ryan’s top two deputies — both eyeing his gavel — have noticeably declined to join the speaker’s defense of the FBI.

Indeed, Ryan’s remarks come as White House officials and a small group of Hill Republicans have grown frustrated with him and wish he would step aside now to allow a successor to take over. While the White House hasn’t tried to push Ryan out, his comments make some of them want to.

The No. 2 and No. 3 House leaders, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), both want to be speaker and have been fighting for the Trump mantle. They’ve taken to cable TV to defend Trump, discredit the Russia investigation and position themselves as the heir apparent.

“Let them walk through their investigation. But if there is no collusion, it’s time to wind this down,” McCarthy told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, later adding: “There was no collusion… This has gone on for more than a year. It’s been investigated in so many different manners.”

Trey Gowdy and Paul Ryan are pictured. | Getty Images

On Monday, when conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity pressed Scalise on why Ryan hasn’t done more to take on the FBI and defend Trump, Scalise touted his own skepticism of the agency and said the probe is “becoming a witch hunt.”

Ryan allies say the speaker is one of the most honest Republicans in Congress and won’t subscribe to conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact. Rep. Tom Rooney, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said “Paul’s right” and argued that the entire “Spygate” narrative is silly.

“What is the point of saying that there was a spy in the campaign when there was none?” the Florida Republican asked. He later added: “I’m sure they will go after Paul because they love going after Paul…. But Paul is a good, honest, decent man … [He’s] not going to make stuff up.”

The Russia comments were Ryan’s second tweaking of the president in the past week. His office pushed back on Trump’s proposal to slap tariffs on U.S. allies. The speaker, a true-believer in free markets and free trade, argued that the White House should be going after China for unfair trade practices instead.

But it was his Russia comments Wednesday that drew the most notice, given Trump’s near-daily attacks on what he calls Mueller’s “witch hunt.”

The speaker, who abhors drama and beltway gossip, usually tells the president privately when he disagrees with him and often claims ignorance when asked by reporters about controversial Trump comments or tweets. But he came to the press conference Thursday ready to address the issue.

Last week, Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor well versed in law enforcement matters, blew holes in the “Spygate” narrative by saying the FBI did the right thing in chasing down legitimate leads about Russian contacts with Trump campaign officials. Ryan, who is close with Gowdy and respects him, wasn’t going to leave him on his own as Trump critics lit into him.

At the same time, Ryan framed his comments as part of an “initial assessment,” leaving himself wiggle room to change his mind if other facts emerge. Ryan also said he still wants to see documents from the Justice Department on the matter.

“I think Chairman Gowdy’s initial assessment is accurate… but we have some more digging to do,” Ryan said. “I have seen no evidence to the contrary of the initially assessment that Chairman Gowdy has made, but I want to make sure we run every lead down and make sure we get final answers to these questions.”

Donald and Melania Trump are pictured. | Getty Images

Those caveats didn’t cut it for several House conservatives who heard Ryan’s comments. Many of them are already upset that Ryan has been unable to stop moderate Republicans from forcing a series of bipartisan immigration votes on the House floor later this month.

Asked about Ryan’s press conference Thursday, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally and Russia probe critic, said he planned to speak with Ryan about it personally, though he wouldn’t go into details. And Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) was dismissive of the speaker’s implicit defense of the FBI.

“We’re supposed to trust the FBI now? The same FBI that we’ve caught, literally caught, hiding information?” Jordan said. “Come on.”

Ryan’s comments drew rare praise from Democrats. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, on Thursday praised Ryan — and his old nemesis on the House Benghazi Committee, Gowdy — for challenging the president.

“I think they’re just telling the truth, and I think it’s a damn shame that our new normal is that when members tell the truth … that brings on an attack,” Cummings said. “I’m grateful that they have the courage.”

John Bresnahan and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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