President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump (L) meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at The Capitol Building on Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty

Paul Ryan’s defense of Trump on race falls far short

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has made a spirited effort to defend Donald Trump throughout the president’s first year in office, though this was put to the test on “Face the Nation” yesterday. CBS’s John Dickerson brought up race relations and Trump’s “ability to bring this country together.” It led to this exchange:

RYAN: I think, like you say, like I said before, he’s learning. I know his heart’s in the right place. And –

DICKERSON: How do you know that?

RYAN: Just – I’ve had some candid conversations with him about this. Especially during that time [following the Charlottesville violence]. I’ve had some very candid conversations. And so I do really believe his heart’s in the right place.

I suppose the reflexive response to this is to note that the GOP congressman used to have a different perspective. In June 2016, for example, after Trump went after Judge Gonzalo Curiel because of his ethnicity, Ryan had no interest in defending his fellow Republican’s heart. “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Ryan said at a press conference at the time.

We could also note that given the volume of Trump’s racially inflammatory incidents, including his leadership role in promoting racist conspiracy theories, it’s hard not to be skeptical about Paul Ryan’s reassurances.

But the more I thought about the Speaker’s assessment, the more I wondered whether his defense of the president misses the point of the broader controversy.

When it comes to presidential leadership – or more to the point, attempts at presidential leadership – what matters is what Trump says and does. Ryan’s argument seems to be that, deep down inside, there’s a core goodness in the president that the public doesn’t necessarily see, but which the Speaker has come to appreciate following candid conversations in private.

Reasonable people can debate whether that core goodness exists or not, but the significance of the answer pales in significance to the president’s actions.

What’s more important, Trump’s heart being in the right place or his defense of some racist activists as “very fine people”? Or his Muslim ban? Or his contention that Mexican immigrants are rapists? Or his hesitation in denouncing David Duke?