As has been strenuously noted, Trump and Ryan are stylistic and philosophical opposites: Trump the blunt-force agitator vs. Ryan the think-tank conservative. Trump lashes out while Ryan treads carefully. Ryan still fashions himself a “policy guy” and a man of ideas: In high school, he read the conservative philosopher Ayn Rand and was captivated by her signature work, “Atlas Shrugged.” He bills himself as a guardian of the free-trading, debt-shrinking notions that Republican-led governments used to stand for before Trump crashed the tent. The speaker says he tries to encourage good behavior in the president. “He put out a tweet last night that was really good,” Ryan told me after he and the president hung up. (It was apparently an inoccuous tweet about trade.) The speaker’s words carried the vaguely patronizing tone of a parent affirming a potty-training milestone.
Ryan announced in April that he would not be seeking re-election, ending a 20-year run in Congress that, for most of it, seemed to be on a straight-up trajectory. Ryan’s official reason for leaving was that his “family clock was ticking” and he no longer wanted to be a “weekend dad.” But it’s easy to suspect otherwise, and not just because that is a clichéd excuse: Ambitious 48-year-old politicians at the peak of their powers don’t suddenly just decide to quit because they’ve discovered that their teenage children are growing up fast back in Wisconsin. Ryan should, by rights, be riding out of town at the pinnacle of his starlit Washington career. Yet he remains a distinctly awkward match to a moment — and president — that seem certain to define much of his legacy.
This is among the headiest commendations a Republican could hope to receive in Donald Trump’s Washington. “That happens to me a lot,” Ryan added, referring to his post-TV attaboy. But it’s important to seize openings, and he used the opportunity to steer the conversation to the subject of trade policy. The speaker had met the day before at the Capitol with the top trade officials from the European Union, who later that day would be meeting with Trump. He and the president compared notes. Ryan said he encouraged him to emphasize their shared goal of reducing and eliminating trade barriers. Trump seemed to get the message, or Ryan hoped he had.
“Ah, jeez,” he said a few seconds after we sat down. An aide had just handed Ryan a note: The president was on the phone. “Let me take this real quick,” he said. I waited a few minutes in the reception area until being invited back in. “The president saw me on ‘Fox & Friends,’ ” Ryan told me, explaining the interruption. “He said he thought I looked good.”
Paul Ryan has a thing about punctuality and routine. They bring a sense of order to the chaos that he otherwise must try to maneuver through. We sat down at 9 a.m. sharp in the ornate offices of the speaker of the House at the United States Capitol. It was a Wednesday in late July, and Ryan had a packed morning, starting with an appearance on “Fox & Friends” and ending with a meeting at the White House with President Trump — if there is even a difference.