PARK CITY, Utah — House Speaker Paul Ryan urged party unity at Mitt Romney’s annual ideas summit amid a presidential campaign that has been anything but harmonious. He also was forced to explain his endorsement of Donald Trump to a Republican crowd mostly critical of the presumptive Republican nominee.
In a session at Romney's E2 summit closed to the press, Ryan was asked by Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, a financier of the "Stop Trump" movement, how he could support Trump. She called Trump a demagogue and compared him to Hitler and Mussolini, according to two people in the room who confirmed on the basis of anonymity. Whitman's direct question was first reported by the Washington Post.
Ryan responded that he endorsed to keep the party together, according to three people in the ballroom and agreed to discuss it. He also said that Trump won among voters so he didn't want to go against their will.
Ryan also encouraged party unity, but he didn’t attempt to persuade the mostly anti-Trump crowd to get behind the presumptive Republican nominee; instead he rallied the attendees to give their money and support to House and Senate races to maintain Republican majorities.
Ryan's finessing around Trump was telling given the crowd. Many attendees of the confab of around 250 friends and allies of Romney are skeptical of Trump’s conservative credentials and are uneasy with his inflammatory remarks.
Half a dozen attendees came away from the session with Ryan impressed, but his sales job is a difficult one.
"I know he wants to unify the party, but I don’t know that it can be unified given that we have a very divisive nominee," said Lanhee Chen, Romney’s former foreign policy adviser and professor at Stanford.
It even took Ryan one month to get behind Trump after he clinched the nomination.
But Spencer Zwick, the head of Ryan's finance operation and former Romney fundraising chief, told NBC News that Ryan wants to focus the next five months until Election Day on his policy agenda.
“He also believes his agenda is the one thing that can help maintain a majority in the senate and that really has been his effort," Zwick said.
Romney has no plans to get behind Trump, making unity difficult. Romney has been one of Trump’s most consistent and vocal critics within the GOP and he told CNN Friday Trump is not an option for him in November.
"I myself will not be voting for either one of them. I just can't bring myself to vote for Hillary Clinton. I don't think that that policies that she promotes are right for the country, and Mr. Trump I think is too great a departure from the values of our country," Romney said.
Head of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus is scheduled to speak at the E2 summit Saturday morning where he is expected to encourage the group, many of whom are Republican donors, to ensure the party has the tools it needs to win in November, including funding for a superior data operation and get-out-the-vote effort.
"Reince's job is not to give the unifying massage of the party, his job is to make sure the mechanics work," Zwick said.
While many of the attendees of the retreat are critical of Trump, not all the speakers are. On the same panel was Whiteman and fast-food chain CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder. Both donated large amounts of money to Romney's presidential bids, but Puzder has jumped on Trump's fundraising efforts.
And the final session of the conference is stacked with members of Congress, including leading Trump critic, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Trump advocate, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
As for a third party alternative, attendees even asked Ryan about it, but Zwick said the possibilities are slim.
“It was asked several times today, is there another option,” Zwick said. “But I think (time for) another option is really come and gone.”
Many of the attendees are former advisers and staff and donors to Romney during his presidential campaigns. He built a loyal staff who thinks highly of the former Massachusetts governor. When asked if they wish Romney would have run again, Chen said that’s not really discussed.
"What we talk about is where we are four years later and how we ended up with Donald Trump as the nominee,” Chen said.