MADISON, Wis. — House Speaker Paul Ryan took questions for the first time since a flurry sexual assault allegations against GOP nominee Donald Trump came to light this week but actively avoided any queries about the GOP presidential nominee.
Indeed, during the course of the hour-long event, Ryan made no mention of Trump’s name.
The questions, offered by a group of college Republicans following a speech by Ryan targeting Hillary Clinton, were submitted in advance, said Alex Walker, chairman of the Wisconsin College Republicans, and screened by the campaign. Ryan’s campaign spokesman said the campaign “didn’t filter out any questions about Trump” and that Ryan "answered as many as he was able to in the time allotted."
The Speaker ignored questions shouted by the press on his way out. And none of the seven questions the students asked were directly focused on Trump — the closest was a student asking for advice on advocating for Republican candidates on a “liberal campus…given the challenges in this election.”
In response, Ryan acknowledged “the kind of election we really want to have, it's not the one we're necessarily having right now,” but encouraged the students to focus on substance rather than “the latest twitter storm.”
“Talk about what you believe and why you believe it and why you think it's important to keep our country's core principles, stick to the constitution, and fight for these beliefs,” he said. “You have to have an agenda.”
And that’s what Ryan himself tried to lay out during his speech on Friday, in which he framed the election as a "debate between two governing philosophies" — rather than the nasty, personal battle between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton it's become.
"Beneath all the ugliness lies a long-running debate between two governing philosophies: one that is in keeping with our nation's founding principles — like freedom and equality — and another that seeks to replace them," Ryan said.
He went on to deliver a piercing indictment of the Democratic agenda and Clinton’s campaign, charging the “the left does not just seek a continuation of the last eight years … they intend to make it into a reality — an arrogant, condescending, and paternalistic reality."
And he attacked Clinton’s campaign slogan — "Stronger Together" — telling the audience it amounts to a case for government dependence and control.
"What she means is, we are stronger if we are all subject to the state. What she means is, we are stronger if we give up our ties of responsibility to one another and hand all of that over to government," Ryan said.
"But there is no strength in that. Only hubris. Only the arrogance to assume we are better off if we fall in line and bow down to our betters."
In contrast, Ryan offered the GOP as the choice that would be “positive and inclusive, bring people together and reclaim our founding principles.”
The speech is yet another attempt by Ryan to refocus an election that's gone wildly off the rails as Trump this week lashed out at both Democrats and Republicans — even Ryan himself — for what he says is a conspiracy against him. That's how Trump has explained the flurry of sexual assault allegations he's faced this week, prompted by the release of a 2005 tape of a private conversation in which he bragged about groping women against their will.
That video sparked an exodus of GOP support from the nominee over the weekend, culminating in Ryan telling Republican lawmakers Monday that while he still plans to vote for the GOP nominee, he won't defend or campaign with him.
Instead, Ryan said he'd focus all of his energies on electing Republicans down-ballot. His speech Friday — along with a policy-oriented speech he gave the day before — appears to be part of that effort, as the speaker is attempting to build a more positive, substantive image of the GOP that may appeal to Republican voters turned off by Trump.