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Despite Claim, Trump Campaign Says It Barred Ryan Challenger From Rally

Paul Nehlen, challenging Paul Ryan in the primary, accused the state GOP of stepping in but the Trump campaign said it, not the party, made the call.
Paul Nehlen, a Republican primary challenger to House Speaker Paul Ryan, accuses Ryan of betraying the party in an "act of sabotage" against presidential nominee Donald Trump Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, in Janesville, Wis.Scott Bauer / AP

GREEN BAY, Wisc. — Donald Trump’s campaign said Friday it barred House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary challenger Paul Nehlen from entering the candidate’s Wisconsin rally because the candidate didn’t show a ticket, refuting Nehlen’s charges that the Wisconsin Republican Party was working to keep him away.

It’s another setback for Nehlen’s long-shot bid, which briefly gained some momentum this week when Trump praised his campaign while refusing to endorse Ryan in an interview with the Washington Post.

But by Friday, the latest spat between Trump and Ryan seemed to be over — and Ryan headed toward an easy primary win — when Trump endorsed the Speaker at a Green Bay rally.

Nehlen tried to attend the rally as a spectator, but told reporters after a Saturday-afternoon rally in Kenosha, that he was barred entry by the state party in an attempt to keep him out of the public eye.

"The Wisconsin GOP is doing everything they can to keep my name out of anywhere. They don't want their own constituents to know that, that there's an option out there. They want Speaker Ryan to be the only game in town. That's how the Wisconsin machine works,” Nehlen told NBC News in an interview.

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But a Wisconsin GOP staffer pushed back Nehlen’s comments, telling NBC News that the Wisconsin GOP staff at the rally were acting as volunteers, and only the Trump campaign had the discretion to decide who to bar from entering the rally. And Trump Campaign Communications Director Jason Miller said that it was the campaign’s decision to turn Nehlen away from the Green Bay rally.

"A Trump campaign representative was the person who turned away Mr. Nehlen, because he didn't have a ticket for the event. I’m looking into the matter further. Our events are always open to the public if you’re a ticketed attendee,” Miller said in an interview.

In response, the Nehlen campaign produced copies of two tickets to the Green Bay rally they say they tried to use to get in to the event. Asked about the tickets, the Trump campaign reiterated that no ticket was presented at the door, without clearing up the discrepancy between the two.

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It’s another odd twist to a race that’s gained outsized media coverage in the wake of Trump’s brief, and ultimately inconsequential, foray into the primary. Nehlen’s framed himself as the anti-establishment, populist alternative to Ryan, in the same vein as Trump, but with Trump endorsing Ryan Friday that argument lost much of its resonance heading into the final days before the primary.

Nehlen has insisted the endorsement was meaningless and that it doesn’t reflect agreement with Ryan’s policies, only a show of leadership by Trump in attempting to unify the party. He’s instead focused his ire on the Wisconsin GOP, looking to gin up anti-establishment fervor behind his campaign by routinely charging the state party has meddled in the primary on Ryan’s behalf.

But with surveys out this past week showing Ryan leading Nehlen by a huge double-digit margin and enjoying strong popularity in his district, the Green Bay rally incident may simply be a small controversy on the way to a resounding Tuesday win for Ryan.