House Speaker Paul Ryan, the nation's top elected Republican, effectively abandoned Donald Trump Monday, telling anxious fellow lawmakers he will not campaign for or defend the floundering businessman in the election's closing weeks. Pro-Trump members rebelled in anger, accusing Ryan of conceding the election to Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, Ryan said he would devote his energy to ensuring Clinton doesn't get a "blank check" as president with a Democratic-controlled Congress, according to people on his private conference call with GOP House members. While the Wisconsin Republican did not formally rescind his own tepid endorsement of Trump, he told lawmakers they were free to do just that and fight for their own re-election.
Trump fired back on Twitter, saying Ryan "should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee."
Trump retained the backing of the Republican National Committee, which has overseen crucial field efforts for the candidate in battleground states. On a conference call with RNC members, chairman Reince Priebus said the party remains in full coordination with Trump.
"Everything is on course," Priebus said, according to a participant in the call.
Still, Ryan's announcement underscored the perilous predicament Republicans find themselves in one month from Election Day. Recent revelations of Trump's predatory sexual comments about women deepened the worries among GOP officials who fear he'll drag down their own electoral prospects in November. But others look at Trump's loyal bands of supporters and see no way for Republicans in other races to win without their support.
Trump himself made no reference to Ryan and the GOP defections at a Pennsylvania rally, except perhaps one line that could apply to fleeing Republicans as well as the Democrats.
"The last 72 hours has framed what this election is all about. It's about the American people fighting back against corrupt politicians who don't care about anything except for staying in power," he said.
Running mate Mike Pence said he was staying with Trump. "I'm honored to be standing with him," Pence said.
Trump's candidacy long ago laid bare the turmoil roiling the GOP. Some party leaders had hoped to push off a reckoning until after the election, but with Ryan and other lawmakers publicly distancing themselves from Trump — and in some cases even calling for the real estate mogul to drop out of the race — that now appears impossible.
For Ryan, the most pressing goal through the next four weeks is preventing Republicans from losing control of the House, a scenario that seemed remote as recently as a week ago. Although Republicans are not yet panicking given their wide 246-186 seat majority, Ryan and Greg Walden, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, both acknowledged on Monday's conference call that the majority was more in peril in light of Trump's problems.
Clinton's campaign hammered Republicans for recoiling from Trump at this late date and urged voters to hold GOP candidates accountable for standing by their nominee for months. The campaign had earlier tweeted that "Ryan is still endorsing Trump."
The remarkable development came as Trump battled to rescue his campaign after the release last week of a 2005 video in which he is heard bragging about how his fame allowed him to "do anything" to women. Several leading Republicans have withdrawn their support or even called for him to drop out of the race.
Several people on the call said Ryan explicitly told House members, "You all need to do what's best for you in your district."
Ryan said he was "willing to endure political pressure to help protect our majority," a person on the call said.
In the eyes of many Republican leaders, the recently released tape of a 2005 conversation in which Trump made vulgar, predatory comments about women not only jeopardized his own uphill candidacy but that of Republicans fighting to hold their majority in the Senate. Their commanding majority in the House could now be in peril, too.
Some conservatives expressed alarm with Ryan's tone, according to those on the call.
California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher called Republican leaders "cowards," one person on the call said.
On the other side of the Capitol, there were signs that more Republican Senate candidates were moving to distance themselves from Trump. Two Republicans said they expected to see ads urging voters to back GOP Senate candidates as a check on Clinton's power in the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to even acknowledge Trump, telling business leaders in his home state of Kentucky that if they expected to hear him discuss the presidential race they "might as well go ahead and leave."
Questioned at Sunday's debate about his vulgar remarks, Trump turned his fire on the Democrats. He accused Bill Clinton of having been "abusive to women" and said Hillary Clinton went after those women "viciously." He declared the Democratic nominee had "tremendous hate in her heart" and should be in jail.
"Anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it's exploding," Clinton countered.
For voters appalled by Trump's words, the businessman's debate performance likely did little to ease their concerns. He denied he had kissed and groped women without their consent, dismissing his claims that he had as "locker room" talk.
Clinton on Monday tweeted: "If Trump stands by what he said about women as 'locker room talk,' he's clearly not sorry."
"Just like Michelle says, when they go low, we go high," President Barack Obama added on his account. "@HillaryClinton went high and showed why she'll be a POTUS for all Americans."
Trump's intensely loyal supporters might well be energized by his vigorous criticism of Clinton. He labeled her "the devil" and promised she would "be in jail" if he were president because of her email practices at the State Department — a threat that drew widespread criticism.
"That was a quip," Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager, said Monday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." She also wouldn't confirm what he said at the debate: that as president he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton. Trump was "channeling the frustration" of voters, she said.
But Trump doubled down on the prosecuting Clinton at the Pennsylvania rally on Monday afternoon: "I win, we're going to appoint a special prosecutor."
And he said that if more tapes are released of Trump saying inapporpriate things, "we'll continue to talk about Bill and Hillary Clinton doing inappropriate things."
Going into Sunday's debate, Trump trailed Clinton by double digits among likely voters, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that showed Clinton with 46 percent support among likely voters in a four-way matchup, compared to 35 percent for Trump.
The Trump video overshadowed potentially damaging revelations about Clinton's paid speeches to Wall Street firms. Emails released by WikiLeaks last week showed Clinton told a group that it's acceptable for a president to project differing positions in public and private.
Asked if that's "two-faced," Clinton pointed to Abraham Lincoln's effort to get the 13th Amendment passed, allowing emancipation of slaves, by lawmakers who did not support African-American equality.
Rolling his eyes, Trump said, "Now she's blaming the late, great Abraham Lincoln."
WikiLeaks published another 2,000 emails Monday that it said belonged to Clinton campaign chief John Podesta.