House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to stick to his weak-willed, meager admonishment of Donald Trump's repugnant comments on Charlottesville. But CNN's Jake Tapper was not buying it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is still in search of his spine, and apparently his conscience, as well.
Monday morning, Ryan issued a rather belated statement on the white supremacist riot a week earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which he condemned the hateful ideology of the neo-Nazis and declared that "there is no moral relativism" when it comes to such groups.
But he couldn't bring himself to call out Donald Trump by name for exhibiting exactly that attitude in his unhinged press conference Tuesday following the riot.
Ryan's statement was posted to his Facebook page in advance of a town hall that evening — his first public, televised town hall in nearly two years, at which the questions were still carefully screened beforehand.
One of the first questions was on the subject of Charlottesville, and specifically on Ryan's failure to condemn Trump's horrible remarks about "both sides" being at fault, about the supposed "alt-left" and the "very fine people" mixed up with the enraged Klan members and skinheads.
Eric Kramer, a constituent of Ryan's, noted that Ryan had "forcefully condemned bigotry and racism," but asked him, "Are you willing to come out and forcefully condemn Trump's statement, such as [Tennessee Republican Sen.] Bob Corker and Mitt Romney have?"
A simple, straightforward question, which ought to have received an equally simple, straightforward answer.
But Ryan again couldn't bring himself to make such a response, instead rambling on and proffering more mealy-mouthed assessments of Trump's hateful words.
"The president and I spoke on Monday morning about the need for moral clarity," Ryan responded vaguely, "about the need at this very difficult time in our country to have a morally clear message, to absolutely and singularly condemn this repulsive bigotry."
Ryan praised Trump's speech that Monday as "pitch perfect."
But on the subject of Trump's horrifically offensive comments the following day, Ryan had only this to say: "I think he made comments that were much more morally ambiguous, much more confusing, and I do think he could have done better. I think he needed to do better."
"I do believe that he messed up" in those comments, Ryan tepidly stated, "when it sounded like a moral equivocation, or at the very least, moral ambiguity."
It "sounded like moral equivocation" because it was. Trump literally compared neo-Nazis to those resisting neo-Nazis, and put the so-called "alt-right" against the ridiculous notion of an equally violent "alt-left." But apparently Ryan thought Trump simply didn't convey his message well enough, and left us "confused" — rather than admit that Trump said precisely what he meant to, and did not confuse anyone listening so much as thoroughly disgust them.
Ryan went on to insist that "it should not be about the president. This is not about Republicans or Democrats."
But it was the president who made those repugnant statements, and it was the Republican speaker of the House sitting in that town hall, doing everything he could to gloss over both his and Trump's moral failings.
"This issue speaks to humanity, our country, our society, our culture," Ryan bleated, complaining that we shouldn't be "getting into a spat with other people" about it — an insulting belittlement of the fear and disgust millions of Americans, including his constituents, have experienced over the past week.
And while some in the audience applauded, CNN's Jake Tapper, the host of the town hall, was very clearly not swayed by Ryan's pretty words and calculatedly furrowed brow.
TAPPER: I think the issue that Eric was expressing is the reluctance to criticize President Trump for specifically saying things like "very fine people" were marching in that rally, that had swastikas and anti-Semitic chants. [applause] And there were not any "very fine people" in that rally. [applause]
RYAN: That's right, that's right, that's right.
TAPPER: And it wasn't morally ambiguous; it was morally wrong. [applause]
Ryan continued his aw-shucks performance, saying that of course anyone marching with Klan members is "not a good person ... I totally agree with that." But he still went on to praise Trump again for his other statements.
And when asked by Rabbi Dena Feingold of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha — and the sister of former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold — if he would support the resolution to censure Trump brought by congressional Democrats, as a way to hold Trump accountable "when his words and executive actions either implicitly or explicitly condone, if not champion, racism and xenophobia," Ryan vehemently stated his opposition.
"I think that would be so counter-productive," Ryan insisted. "If we descend this issue into some partisan hack-fest, into some bickering against each other, and demean it down to some political food fight, what good does that do to unify this country?"
One might ask Ryan to answer his own question: What good does dismissing moral outrage over abject racism from the president, and deepening terror for their very safety that millions of Americans feel every day, as a "hack-fest" and "bickering" and a "food fight" do to unify this country?
Censuring Trump is not about scoring some kind of empty political points; it is about actually standing up and defending the values of unity and empathy and humanity about which Ryan seems desperate to convince people he truly cares.
As Tapper later pointed out, Trump gave "aid and comfort to people who are fans of losing, discredited, hateful ideologies."
When Ryan appeared to want to argue, Tapper continued, "The people who applauded those remarks on Tuesday were David Duke and Richard Spencer."
And the person continuing to do nothing more than label those remarks as "messing up" is House Speaker Paul Ryan.