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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Dana Milbank: The bottom drops out for Republicans

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., did not have his thoughts collected when he faced the cameras after telling Republican colleagues he would not seek re-election to Congress in November.

“I intend to full my serve term,” he announced.

Right. And I luck him good wish.

I can see why Ryan is scrambled. The party he leads is on course for a drubbing, and possibly a historic drubbing. Though much could change, Republican incumbents are voting with their feet – House Republicans who aren’t seeking re-election now number in the mid-40s – and the speaker’s announcement, after just 2 1/2 years in the position, sends the unmistakable if unintended message that the bottom has dropped out.

The speaker’s retirement launched a thousand sinking-ship metaphors. But Capt. Ryan’s abandon-ship announcement adds a unique twist to the metaphor: The thing he’s clinging to as a life raft is actually the iceberg.

Shortly after assuming the speakership, Ryan, a promising young leader, made the mother of all miscalculations: He supported Donald Trump for president, reasoning that he could not remain speaker if he opposed Trump. And so Ryan, the highest GOP officeholder in the land and the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, delivered the Republican establishment to Trump.

Now, 15 months into Trump’s disastrous presidency, Ryan’s speakership is ending anyway. The free-market, limited-government conservatism he championed has been destroyed. And yet he still binds himself to the man who destroyed it all.

Fox News’ Mike Emanuel asked whether Ryan was “sending a signal that the House is lost for Republicans.”

Ryan, incredibly, answered by praising Trump. “I’m grateful for the president to give us this chance to actually get this stuff done,” he said.

Was his retirement influenced by the way Trump changed the party?

“Not at all,” Ryan maintained. “… I’m grateful to the president for giving us this opportunity to do big things to get this country on the right track.”

The right track.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump announced via Twitter that he would be firing “nice and new and ‘smart’ ” missiles into Syria and dared Russia to shoot them down. In recent days, Trump’s third national security adviser started and his homeland security adviser quit; Trump has made noises about firing the special counsel and the deputy attorney general; federal prosecutors probed payments made in 2016 to two women who alleged affairs with Trump; the Congressional Budget Office forecast years of trillion-dollar deficits because of Trump’s tax cuts and spending hikes; there are fears of a trade war; the Environmental Protection Agency administrator is embroiled in an ethics scandal; and after a fire in Trump Tower killed a man, Trump said nothing about the death while boasting about the “well built” building.

Oh, and Trump says things are “very calm” in the White House.

Thank you for all this, Paul Ryan.

Now Republicans are dashing for the exits. Soon after Ryan’s announcement came word that Rep. Dennis A. Ross, R-Fla., a deputy whip, would be retiring. And House Republicans, after listening to Ryan’s announcement at a caucus meeting in the Capitol basement, emerged with grim forecasts.

“There’s a lot of weariness and a lot of exhaustion, frankly,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who is retiring. “You’re really in a no-win position if you’re running in this cycle,” he said, calling it a “pretty damn toxic political environment. … It’s going to be a referendum on the president of the United States and his conduct in office.”

Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., said chances of keeping the House majority are “probably 50-50.”

Maybe they’ll lose 50 seats and maybe they’ll lose another 50?

Ryan gave a too-jovial “Good morning, everybody!” as he approached the cameras in the House TV studio to explain his rationale. He said he wanted to be more than a “weekend dad.” He said he was leaving on his “own terms,” like Tip O’Neill. (O’Neill was speaker for a decade and left with his party’s majority assured.) He said he achieved a “heck of a lot” with the tax cut and military spending hike. (But that sacrificed the fiscal responsibility Ryan preached for years.) He said he had “no regrets whatsoever” about taking the job – nor apparently about his decision to bind his and his party’s fate to Trump.

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane asked about Trump’s talk of firing special counsel Robert Mueller III and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

“I have no reason to believe that’s going to happen,” Ryan said, citing “assurances” from “people in the White House.”

These same people brought his speakership to ruin. Yet Ryan still trusts.

Dana Milbank is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.

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