ST. LOUIS — House Speaker Paul Ryan all but abandoned Donald Trump on Monday, nearly obliterating any bounce from what allies had called a “heroic” debate performance Sunday night and instead paving the way for a cascade of additional defections from top party leaders attempting to distance themselves from their nominee.
In a conference call with House Republicans, Ryan told members that he would not defend Trump — or campaign with him over the next four weeks — and would instead turn his attention solely to trying to preserve GOP majorities in the House and Senate. His goal, said people on the call, was to avoid Democratic gains in Congress that could pave the way for major policy changes by a Clinton White House.
While not explicitly rescinding his endorsement of Trump, he gave members cover to do so by telling them, “You need to do what’s best for you in your district,” according to a person who was on the call.
It was an extraordinary snub from the nation’s top elected Republican, and 2012 vice presidential nominee, and reflected the continued discord in the party over how to handle the final weeks before the election. It ripped open primary wounds that the party spent the summer trying to stitch up, and illustrated the canyon that exists between Trump’s resilient base of support and a party establishment that has grown horrified at their nominee’s behavior.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, taken after a video of Trump’s crude comments surfaced on Friday, showed Hillary Clinton opening up a double-digit lead. It also showed that an increasing number of voters favor Democrats taking control of Congress.
Later on Monday, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, in a call with committee members, reportedly pledged to continue supporting Trump and tamped down speculation that the party would being steering its resources elsewhere.
Trump’s top donors, meanwhile, are reporting new challenges. A fund-raiser hosted by Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska was canceled due to lack of donor interest, according to one person familiar with the event.
Shortly after Ryan’s call with the House rank-and-file, Trump fired back on Twitter: “Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee.”
Illustrating how dire Trump’s campaign is at the moment, the one bright spot — if it could be called that — was that his running mate, Mike Pence, denied in several television interviews on Monday morning that he was considering leaving the ticket.
“Donald Trump stepped up and won the debate last night,” Pence said on Fox News. “He showed humility and he showed strength and he expressed genuine contrition . . . I’m just proud of the job he did, proud of my running mate.”
A CNN/ORC poll of debate watchers released on Monday found that 57 percent said that Clinton won, compared with 34 percent for Trump.
But Trump’s performance in his second presidential debate was strong enough to keep his flagging campaign afloat, with blistering attacks on Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton that played directly to his most fervent base.
In the debate, Trump trained his focus squarely on Clinton, repeatedly calling her a liar, saying she was “the devil,” and pledging that he would put her in jail if he wins the election. But for most of the debate, it seemed that he was still fighting a primary battle, rather than seeking support of undecided voters in key swing states.
Clinton largely maintained her composure, only rarely showing flashes of annoyance.
Shortly after the debate ended, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a Trump backer, said that the GOP candidate did a “heroic job” in the exchange. About the Republican leaders who’ve abandoned Trump in the past 72 hours, he said: “I think they’ve made a mistake.”
“It was clearly a goal, I think, of many in the mainstream liberal media to knock him off course and even knock him out of the race and that failed,” Sessions said. “Unequivocally.”
Trump — whose outsider status has consistently been his calling card in this campaign — is now attempting to battle both the Republican establishment as well as the Clinton campaign.
One part of his strategy Sunday was to surround himself with three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse in the 1990s, and a fourth who has not forgiven Hillary Clinton for her role, as a court-appointed attorney, representing a man accused of raping her when she was 12 years old.
“The women are not a strategy,” Boris Epshteyn, a senior Trump adviser, said after the debate. “It was giving them a voice, which they deserve to have. They have been shamed and bullied and smeared by the Clintons. Donald Trump brought it out there and made sure they were heard.”
During the debate, Clinton accused Trump of staging a sideshow, without discussing specifics of her husband’s scandals.
“OK, Donald, I know you’re into big diversion tonight,” she said. “Anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it’s exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you.”
For Republicans weighing whether to stick with Trump, there are concerns that more damaging news could be coming. Bill Pruitt, a former producer of Trump’s show “The Apprentice,” on Saturday said that more damaging tapes could emerge. “I assure you,” he wrote on Twitter, “there are far worse.”
NBC has said it does not own the footage; Mark Burnett, the producer of the show, has warned staff that he would sue them if they leaked the footage, according to BuzzFeed News. David Brock, a Clinton supporter, has offered to pay the legal fees of anyone who provides the footage.
Burnett on Monday denied threatening litigation, saying in a statement that he “does not have the ability nor the right to release footage or other material from ‘The Apprentice.’ ” MGM, which owns Burnett’s production company, also cannot release the footage because of “various contractual and legal requirements,” according to the statement, reported by Variety.
Trump was pressed during the debate by comoderator Anderson Cooper, who asked Trump whether he had ever kissed or groped women without their consent.
“I will tell you: No, I have not,” he said.
The Globe reported in April about lawsuits that alleged Trump in 1993 “kissed, fondled, and restrained” a woman, and that he jumped uninvited into the bed of a 22-year-old beauty pageant contestant. The New York Times in May reported on numerous women who said they experienced unwanted advances and inappropriate comments, including a former Miss Utah who said Trump kissed her directly on the lips.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton had opened up an 11-point lead among likely voters nationwide. The poll — conducted on Saturday and Sunday, after the damaging videotape of Trump emerged but before the debate — showed Clinton with 46 percent support in a four-way matchup, compared with 35 percent for Trump.
Illustrating the dire situation Republicans are confronting, the poll also found that Democrats now have a 7-point advantage on which party voters want to see take control of Congress.
Democrats would need to gain five seats in the Senate — or four if Clinton wins and her running mate breaks a tie — and 30 seats to take control of the House.
Until recently, the House majority was not seen as being in jeopardy, but there is growing concern among Republicans that the ground may have shifted in the wake of the videotape’s release.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell avoided the topic of Trump on Monday, telling an audience of the Chamber of Commerce in Kentucky about the presidential election, “I don’t have any observations to make.”
Ryan is scheduled to campaign in 17 states and 42 cities this month, but none of the appearances will be with Trump.
“The speaker is going to spend the next month focused entirely on protecting our congressional majorities,” said his spokeswoman, AshLee Strong.