But a scenario is shaping up that may force Ryan to play the white knight after all.
As chairman of the convention, Ryan will command the podium in Cleveland. He will hold the gavel. His face will be front and center on primetime TV.
And if a group of renegade delegates from the speaker’s home state of Wisconsin gets its way, Ryan’s duties won’t stop there.
He will also, they hope, allow his fellow Wisconsinites to block Trump from winning the nomination.
Can these Cheeseheads really overthrow Trump at the convention? And will Ryan, who officially supports the presumptive nominee, actually wade into a civil war on the convention floor and deliver the Donald’s deathblow?
Before we proceed, the usual caveats: Trump has 1,542 delegates. No other candidates are currently challenging him for the nomination. Trump is by far the most likely person to wind up as this year’s Republican presidential nominee. It’s not even close.
Still, various Dump Trump efforts are afoot — and various delegates from various states support these efforts. As a result, there is a non-zero chance that something might happen between now and the final hours of the convention to upend expectations and loosen Trump’s grip on the nomination.
So far, most of the Dump Trump speculation has focused on whether at least 28 of the Rules Committee’s 112 members will back a so-called “conscience clause” designed to give bound delegates permission to cast their ballots for whomever they want, thereby triggering a convention-wide vote on the measure.
But as Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward reports, “The Rules Committee will not be the only stop-Trump game in Cleveland.”
Here’s where that gang of Wisconsinites comes in. They call themselves Delegates Unbound — and they’re plotting to torpedo Trump on the floor of the convention regardless of what happens with the Rules Committee.
Their plan? To convince at least 306 of the 1,542 delegates ostensibly bound to Trump to abstain from voting on the first ballot. If they succeed, Trump would fall short of the magic 1,237-delegate mark required to win the nomination. A second round of balloting would follow. Most state laws and party rules about binding would no longer apply. Other candidates would step forward and offer their services. The convention would become contested.
(Or so the thinking goes.)
“I personally believe there are enough delegates who will abstain to keep Trump from getting the nomination on the first ballot,” Dane Waters, an official with Delegates Unbound, tells Yahoo News. “And I think that will open up a lot of options for the delegates.”
This approach has a couple of advantages for the Dump Trump crowd. First, it doesn’t require any midstream rule changes — a procedure that makes most Republicans squeamish. And second, it allows delegates who don’t want to vote for Trump to obey their consciences without disobeying any rules.
In response to the Dump Trump chatter, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has threatened to invoke Rule 16(a) and simply ignore bound delegates who defy their obligations in Cleveland. But if you actually read Rule 16(a), you’ll see that it prohibits bound delegates from “demonstrat[ing] support … for any person other than the candidate to whom he or she is bound.” [Emphasis added.]
It doesn’t say anything about not voting at all.
Presidential nominating conventions have always permitted Bartlebys — delegates who “would prefer not to” vote. In 1896, for example, Democrats loyal to President Grover Cleveland pushed for a nominee who supported the gold standard, like their hero. But they were outnumbered by “free silver” Democrats. “When the time came to vote, 178 Gold Democrats just sat on their hands,” says convention historian Stan Haynes. “And that remained pretty consistent until the fifth ballot, when the Silver Democrats finally settled on William Jennings Bryan as the nominee.”
Will Delegates Unbound be able to pull any of this off? They are, at the very least, a serious group. Their leader is Eric O’Keefe, a respected political activist in Wisconsin who worked aggressively to bolster Gov. Scott Walker during the 2012 recall campaign, and they are “rumored to be better organized than the more publicized efforts focused on the Rules Committee,” according to Ward.
The numbers, meanwhile, suggest an uphill battle — but not an unwinnable one. A whip count of the delegates conducted this week by a pro-Trump member of the Republican National Committee found large numbers in favor of an open vote, plus many hundreds more up for grabs.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, Randy Evans, an RNC member from Georgia, has estimated that 890 delegates are “personally loyal” to Trump, while another 680 oppose the presumptive Republican nominee. About 900 are undecided or undeclared. That leaves Delegates Unbound with a lot of wiggle room.
Ultimately, however, the success or failure of the group’s effort — and, as a result, the success or failure of the Trump campaign — may depend on Ryan.
Why? Because of how the GOP is supposed to tally its delegates’ votes.
Typically, the chairman of each state’s delegation announces how many delegates each candidate won in his state. But according to Rule 37, “if exception is taken by any delegate from that state to the correctness of such announcement by the chairman of that delegation, the chairman of the convention shall direct the roll of members of such delegation to be called.” In other words, if a delegate bound to Trump wants to abstain, he can object to his state’s tally — and force the “chairman of the convention” (i.e., Ryan) to conduct a recount.
If there are enough of these abstentions in Cleveland — and enough of these recounts — Trump could lose.
“Delegates have the right to object and challenge the authenticity of their state’s announcement of votes cast for the possible nominee,” Waters of Delegates Unbound tells Yahoo News. “There are a significant number of states where delegates have made clear their intent to challenge the number of votes announced if they have been stopped from exercising their right to vote their conscience.”
As chairman, it’s up to Ryan to decide whether he wants to recognize these objections. He has a choice. He could stifle the dissenters by expediting the roll call, which is the trick his predecessor John Boehner pulled on the Ron Paul rebels in 2012. Alternately, he could contract a severe case of selective hearing — a malady that seemed to afflict Boehner's Democratic counterpart, Antonio Villaraigosa, that same year.
Or Ryan could follow the rules and faithfully record every vote.
In some ways, the speaker has played the dutiful party man this cycle; he has technically endorsed Trump even though he seems to object to every other thing the tycoon says. But if you’re looking for clues about how Ryan might react to a bunch of Bartlebys coming forward on the floor of The Q, recall what he said in June when asked whether he would urge his fellow Republicans to follow his example and endorse Trump.
“The last thing I would do is tell anybody to do something that’s contrary to their conscience,” Ryan told NBC's Chuck Todd. “I get that this is a very strange situation. He’s a very unique nominee.”
Translation: Cleveland could still be crazy. And Paul Ryan might be in the middle of the melee.
By Andrew Romano, Yahoo News