STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's one of the eye-opening events of an eye-opening day. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said yesterday he is not ready to endorse two fellow Republicans. The Republicans are House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Senator John McCain. Both face primary elections shortly. And both went to excruciating lengths to endorse Trump.
Joining us now to discuss this and much more is NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis. Hi, Susan.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what's Trump doing?
DAVIS: (Laughter) Well, in some ways, you might say that he might be returning the favor to Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, you know, famously did not initially endorse Donald Trump when he won the presidential primary back in May. He did ultimately endorse him about a month later after this sort of dating ritual with Donald Trump to get on board.
Trump used uncannily similar language in the interview with The Washington Post in which he made these comments when he said I'm not quite there yet, which echoed almost exactly what...
INSKEEP: What Ryan had said, yeah.
DAVIS: ...Paul Ryan said back in May. You know, the Ryan campaign released a statement. It was essentially a shrug. They said, you know, we never asked Donald Trump for his endorsement in this race. And the speaker is confident he's going to win regardless.
INSKEEP: You know, I read the transcript of The Washington Post interview, and it is remarkable. Trump initially says something about Paul Ryan. Then he comes back. He's thinking about that topic, he's watching television, he's commenting on different things. And he comes back and he says - let me give you this exact quote. Let me give you this exact language.
It's definitely a message to the speaker of the house from his own party. But let me ask, is Ryan actually at risk of losing in this primary?
DAVIS: You know, ever since Majority Leader Eric Cantor famously lost his primary in 2014...
INSKEEP: Oh yeah.
DAVIS: ...There's this idea that there is a precedent for a party leader losing in a primary to a challenge from the right, which is what Paul Ryan is facing next Tuesday. That said, this is different for several reasons. And Ryan is in a good position. First, he's still very popular in his district. More registered voters there like him than not, and he's got that going for him.
Two, he's still a good fit for his district. You know, he still goes back to Janesville, Wis. almost every weekend. His family's ingrained in the community. It's hard to cast him as someone out of touch. This is also a district that Ted Cruz beat Donald Trump in the presidential primaries by 18 points, suggesting that the Republican voters there are more in line with the Ryan wing of the Republican Party than the Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party.
INSKEEP: What about John McCain in Arizona?
DAVIS: You know, McCain has a tougher road ahead. He has to do - one, he has to win a primary in which he has to win over a lot of voters who voted for Donald Trump who won Arizona big. And then he has to immediately pivot after an August 30 primary to a general election fight against a well-funded and ready Democrat that he has to win over centrists and Hispanic voters, a lot of those same voters that Donald Trump has alienated in this campaign.
INSKEEP: Wow. Now, let's just remember both McCain and Paul Ryan had just criticized Donald Trump for his treatment of the family of an American veteran killed in Iraq, a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. That's the backdrop for all of this. Does this suggest that the Republican Party is starting to come apart here?
DAVIS: Well, as you said, that fight has sort of exacerbated all of this. We have seen beyond Donald Trump's refusal to endorse Ryan and McCain. Other fracturing this week, Republican Richard Hanna, a House Republican from New York, announced that he would support Hillary Clinton. He is the first member of Congress to say he would not vote for Donald Trump.
Other notable Democrats, particularly women, Sally Bradshaw, a top aide for Jeb Bush, Maria Comella, a top aide for Chris Christie, Meg Whitman, who ran for governor of California and is a big fundraiser for the Republican Party, all announced that they will vote for Hillary Clinton, all using the same word against Donald Trump, unfit, saying he's unfit for the presidency.
INSKEEP: It's amazing reading some of their statements how heartfelt they are, how painful this plainly is for some of these Republicans. But they're essentially saying I can't remain silent in the face of what I see as bigotry or racism or whatever words they use.
DAVIS: And part of that we saw President Obama yesterday call on Republicans to un-endorse Donald Trump. He also called him unfit for office. And this is part of a broader Democratic strategy by Hillary Clinton and others to directly appeal to those kind of Republicans this November.
INSKEEP: Sue, thanks very much.
DAVIS: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.