Former House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a thinly veiled warning Thursday about the Republican Party's reliance on former President Donald Trump, calling on the GOP to re-embrace traditional conservative principles.
"Once again, we conservatives find ourselves at a crossroads," Ryan, R-Wis., said in an outdoor speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., which often hosts GOP officials, presidential candidates and conservative luminaries.
"And here's one reality we have to face: If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality or on second-rate imitations, then we're not going anywhere," he said. "Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence and mettle."
He said it was "horrifying" to see a presidency come to a "dishonorable and disgraceful end," referring to rump's re-election loss and his sputtering — and ultimately unsuccessful — legal battle. He did not mention Trump by name.
It was Ryan's sharpest criticism of Trump, who still enjoys support, albeit lessened, within the GOP, since Ryan left House GOP leadership. An NBC News poll last month found that 44 percent of Republicans say they support Trump more than the GOP, compared to 50 percent who say they support the party more than Trump.
In a statement Friday morning, Trump called Ryan a "RINO," an acronym for Republican in name only, and a "curse" to the GOP.
"He has no clue as to what needs to be done for our country, was a weak and ineffective leader, and spends all of his time fighting Republicans as opposed to Democrats who are destroying our country, Trump said. "As a Republican, having Paul Ryan on your side almost guarantees a loss, for both you, the party, and America itself!"
Factions of the Republican Party have been at loggerheads since Trump's defeat and his baseless claims that the election was "rigged." House Republicans voted this month to remove Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from the No. 3 position in caucus leadership after she vocally rebuked Trump, a move that observers say strengthens his grip on the party. GOP leaders instead elevated Rep. Elise Stefanik, a staunch Trump ally who represents an upstate New York district.
"We cannot let the former president drag us backward," Cheney said at the time.
Ryan's speech echoed Cheney's rhetoric — and it added to the growing number of dissenting voices within the party who have denounced Trump, particularly since the deadly pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which left several people dead. Ryan was reported to have headlined a fundraiser this week for Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who backed Cheney and has criticized Trump.
In his speech, Ryan also called on Republicans to avoid getting "caught up in every little cultural battle" to keep "outrage peddlers" at bay.
"We win majorities by directing our loyalty and respect to voters and by staying faithful to the conservative principles that unite us," said Ryan, who was Mitt Romney's running mate in the 2012 presidential election. "This was true even when the person leading our movement was as impressive, polished and agreeable as they come."
Ryan, who was elected to the House 20 years ago, became speaker in October 2015. He often struggled to unite his party on the issues. Health care reforms stalled while failed negotiations over spending shut the government down. Ryan championed the GOP's 2017 tax cuts, securing a major legislative victory.
Ryan's relationship with Trump has been a complicated one. He was criticized for not standing up to Trump as speaker, even though he said in 2016 that he was "sickened" by Trump's lewd comments about grabbing women that were caught on tape and aired on "Access Hollywood." Ryan announced in 2017 that he wouldn't seek re-election ahead of the 2018 midterms as an intraparty struggle over policy and leadership threw the conference into disarray during Trump's tumultuous first year in office.
But Ryan also praised Trump on Thursday — and criticized President Joe Biden.
"These historic reforms were a triumph of practical conservative policy, a model of the shared prosperity and upward mobility we have always talked about," Ryan said, referring to the 2017 tax cuts. "It was the populism of President Trump in action, tethered to conservative principles."
He suggested that Trump was defeated last year because the country was yearning for bipartisanship, which Biden promised. But Ryan said Biden broke that pledge.
"In 2020, the country wanted a nice guy who would move to the center and depolarize our politics," Ryan said. Instead, "we got a nice guy pursuing an agenda more leftist than any president in my lifetime. These policies might have the full approval of his progressive supporters, but they break faith with the middle-of-the-road folks who made the difference for him on Election Day."