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."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We also, today, have an interview with an American leader in an extraordinary political position - Paul Ryan, speaker of the House. He will soon preside over the Republican convention expected to nominate Donald Trump for president. Ryan supports Trump, even after criticizing him and even after calling some of Trump's language the definition of racist.
PAUL RYAN: I'm the highest-ranking Republican in the country. I'm the speaker of the House. I have certain duties and responsibilities that come with this office. And one of the primary political duties with this job is not to disunify my party and cut it in half and therefore guarantee that the left wins by default.
INSKEEP: That's how Paul Ryan framed his challenge in our talk. We spoke yesterday as we awaited Trump's vice presidential announcement. We were in the U.S. Capitol, in a conference room beneath a vaulted ceiling, part of the office suite the Wisconsin lawmaker took over last year.
Speaker Ryan has already said he doubts he can work with a President Hillary Clinton. She leads a party that is leaning farther and farther left, which left another question, whether he could work with a President Trump. For starters, Trump has sharply criticized trade agreements. And as we'll hear, Ryan argues for them passionately.
RYAN: I've spoken to Donald about this. He says that he wants good trade agreements. So do I. I don't want bad trade agreements. I want good trade agreements. And so the proof is in the pudding, and we have...
INSKEEP: I'm sure if that means you agree, necessarily.
RYAN: I don't know if it agrees, but 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. If America walls itself up, if we address sort of an economic fortress America, we will lose. All these other countries are going around the world getting preferential trade agreements among themselves, leaving us on the outside looking in.
INSKEEP: But you're in a situation where Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, Bernie Sanders opposes NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership...
RYAN: And Hillary Clinton's...
INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton...
RYAN: ...Opposing these things, yeah.
INSKEEP: Well, that's what I'm asking. Have you lost the country on this one?
RYAN: I think we're in tough economic times, and it's 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 to prove that opening up markets and getting good agreements for our country, for our manufacturers, will help get better jobs. 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.
INSKEEP: When Republicans who've endorsed Donald Trump are asked about Trump, it's common for them to say, well, whatever reservations I may have, he'd be a better president than Hillary Clinton. You've said that. So let's take that as a given - that point of view. But let me take Hillary Clinton out of the equation for a moment. Standing on his own, would Donald Trump be a good president of the United States?
RYAN: That's not the question we have in front of us. We have a binary choice. It is either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. So what's the point of entertaining hypotheticals that do not exist? That's not the question we're facing. We're facing...
INSKEEP: Well, it's not a hypothetical. He could be elected. Would he be a good president?
RYAN: We're facing Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, and I do believe that Donald Trump would be a far better president than Hillary Clinton. I think Donald Trump will pick better Supreme Court justices. I think Donald Trump will sign better legislation into law that gets our country on a better path than Hillary Clinton. That's the choice in front of us, and that is why I'm supporting Donald Trump.
INSKEEP: What does he need to change to be a good president?
RYAN: Well, you know, he and I have talked about this. I think - I just think an improving temperament, an 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 a transition. We have to sell converts to conservatism. We have to go out and explain why our principles apply equally and universally to everybody and why our ideas are better.
INSKEEP: Do you have any assurances from Mr. Trump about his behavior or anything that has concerned you?
RYAN: Look, you know I've had disagreements with him. I've made those - those are fairly publicly known. And he's - and he and I have had those same conversations. He knows how I feel about these things.
INSKEEP: But do you think he's changing anything?
RYAN: I believe he's going to endeavor to try.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about something else that gets to being inclusive and to the diversity of the country. You spoke in the House of Representatives after the shootings in the past week, with a long pause at the beginning, as you seemed to be trying to gather the right words to say. And you talked about the need for unity. That's the need you've discussed. But I want to back up one step to the diagnosis. What is your diagnosis of the problem that needs to be addressed?
RYAN: I think we've got communities that are not nearly as successful at merging the community and law enforcement as others are. I think, from what I can tell from listening to friends in the minority community who talk about this as an everyday problem, that there are solutions out there that have to be gotten to that other communities haven't been replicated.
I was talking to my friend Buster Soaries, who's a black pastor in Somerset, N.J., First Baptist Church there. Buster and the other black leaders in Somerset, a low-income community, worked with local law enforcement to set up a group that has instantaneous communications whenever something wrong occurs. And they've got - they've really basically fused and merged the minority community with the police department in a very effective way. And they have a community policing system that works really, really well.
OK, that's not happening in all parts of America. So what I get out of this is we need to learn and listen to people who are hurting, who believe just by the very color of their skin they don't get treated fairly with respect to law enforcement. The fact that so many people believe that is a problem in this country.
INSKEEP: You said that people of color believe they're less safe, that they feel they're less safe. When you look at the statistics, is it clear to you that people of color actually are less safe?
RYAN: Well, I - yeah. I take them - look at Tim Scott. I'd take him at his word. I mean, Tim's a buddy of mine.
INSKEEP: South Carolina senator.
RYAN: Yeah, I think statistics - I won't go into statistics because I don't have them off the top of my head, but I do believe that this is a problem because people are telling me it's a problem. And I believe them.
INSKEEP: Mr. Speaker, thanks very much.
RYAN: You bet. My pleasure.
INSKEEP: House Speaker Paul Ryan in his Capitol offices. We had a long talk as he prepares to preside over next week's Republican convention. And we will hear more from Ryan on Monday on this program as that convention begins. He talks of poverty and the American dream, which for some has proved to be an illusion. You can see the full talk, which is on video, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.