Even though House Speaker Paul Ryan has endorsed Donald Trump, he has continued to have plenty of criticism for his party’s presumptive nominee.
In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Thursday afternoon in his office in the Capitol, Ryan was optimistic that Trump would come around on free trade agreements and the controversial tone he’s used on the campaign trail.
Ryan has continued to defend his support for Trump by saying the presumptive Democratic nominee has to be stopped from winning the White House. At a CNN town hall on Tuesday, Ryan called it “a binary choice … you don’t get a third choice.”
He echoed those comments to Inskeep and refused to consider hypotheticals when asked whether Trump would be a good president, not taking Hillary Clinton into consideration. Ryan said Trump would pick better Supreme Court justices and sign better legislation, and noted he had “certain duties and responsibilities” as the highest-ranking Republican in the country to help unify the party. But he conceded there were some things he’d communicated to Trump that he needs to change.
“I just think improving temperament and inclusive rhetoric, and an agenda that invites people into our party, is something that I think anybody going from a primary to a general election needs,” he said.
Asked whether Trump is going to change his tone and behavior, which have alienated many minority voters and others, Ryan said, “I believe he’s going to endeavor to try.”
On trade agreements — which Trump frequently rails against — Ryan was also optimistic.
“He says he wants good trade agreements. Well, so do I,” Ryan said. “I don’t want bad trade agreements, I want good trade agreements.”
Many economists and legislators argue that more protectionist policies and large tariff increases would drive up consumer prices. Ryan said even if he and Trump don’t agree completely on the issue, there are signs of accord.
“The fact that he says he wants trade agreements, just good ones, I think tells me that he’s not against getting trade agreements, it’s just the quality of the trade agreements he wants to get. And that’s fantastic,” Ryan said. “I want to go get trade agreements, because if America walls itself up, if we address sort of an economic fortress America, we will lose.”
Ryan acknowledged that many Americans remain skeptical of free trade agreements — Trump, Clinton and Bernie Sanders all came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal.
“I think we’re in tough economic times and high anxiety, and I think this is an issue that is always very difficult to sell when we have slow economic growth and flat wages. … We have more work to do, but it’s really hard to talk about the benefits of opening up trade with other countries when we have a tough economy,” Ryan said. “And that’s the situation we find ourselves in today.”
Ryan said since taking over as speaker last October, he’s “learned the country is very distressed” and that as the primaries in both parties played out earlier this year, it became obvious that “people are very anxious.”
“The way I describe it to our colleagues is, the ship is kind of floating all over the place right now,” he continued. We need to “add a keel and a rudder to it to give it some direction.”
Part of that has been his push for the Republican Party to address poverty. Ryan bemoaned that trillions of dollars have been spent and many programs created to try to address it, but it’s “been a problem that’s been stubborn and that we haven’t fixed it.”
“I see a problem that can be fixed,” Ryan said. “But I also see a problem where a lot of people don’t believe in the American idea anymore.”
Ryan is pushing for welfare reforms but said benefits should be “customized” to each person’s individual needs, such as counseling, education and transportation, but with “proper accountability.”
“Just cutting off welfare, it’s sort of the cold love — cutting off cliffs without actually getting a person on a path doesn’t work,” Ryan continued. “But tapering these benefits so that work always pays, it always makes sense to take the next step forward is the way to go. And the only way you can really do that right is to customize a benefit to a person’s particular needs.”
One proposal Ryan floated was to rework the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) so that it’s not a lump sum at the end of the year, but instead paid out monthly or per paycheck to help people who are struggling.
“I think we should apply it to childless adults, because that’s one of the stubborn problems we have,” he added. “You look at labor force participation rates, young childless adults 18 to 34 are the people who are really slipping through the cracks in this country, and they’re running into these cliffs. And so that’s one of the things I think we could do to improve that.”