Short version: The “principled” Ryan’s as radical as he ever was, and in case Trump pulls off a miracle, he’ll need him:
Ryan’s red line is distant enough to be invisible. Just five days after his endorsement, Ryan would be calling Trump’s attacks on “Mexican judge” Gonzalo Curiel “the textbook definition of racism.” The following week, he’d be confronting the embarrassment Trump dealt Republicans in the aftermath of a significant terrorist attack. Questioned last week about Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims, Ryan said that he “would sue any president that exceeds his or her powers,” suggesting Trump can behave like an authoritarian on the campaign trail, without losing Ryan’s endorsement, so long as he doesn’t operate like one when he’s in office.
But even this suggests Ryan worries more about crossing Trump than he does about Trump crossing some arbitrary line of propriety. Tellingly, the idea of legislating with Democrats in veto-proof fashion (now or next year) to tie President Trump’s hands did not occur to him. Neither did the existence of the impeachment power. Yet unlike those enumerated powers, the power to sue is largely untested. And as former House Speaker John Boehner’s stunt health-care lawsuit against the Obama administration demonstrated, even if it ultimately succeeded, suing President Trump would take forever, and would allow his depredations to continue for years in the meantime.
It’s impossible to fully grasp Ryan’s thinking without understanding how close he feels he’s come to realizing a decades-old dream. That dream, as Grover Norquist told CPAC four years ago, culminates with the election of a figurehead. “We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget…We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate…Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”
Ryan may not imagine a president’s obligations to be quite so perfunctory, but he agrees that the main purpose of electing a Republican president is to fulfill that final, unthinking step in the legislative process. Trump’s digits are legendarily stumpy, but still large enough to cast a signature. And as long as that’s true, Ryan will set the bar for abandoning him very, very high.