Pressure for one last attempt to dump Donald Trump built among Republicans on Sunday, as the party’s leader appeared to encourage a possible revolt that could still see an alternative nominee chosen at next month’s national convention.
After a week in which the presumptive nominee appalled many colleagues with his reaction to a shooting massacre in Orlando, House speaker Paul Ryan made clear he would not try to obstruct any rebellion against Trump by delegates in Cleveland.
“They write the rules, they make the decisions,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press. “All I want to make sure is to make sure it is done above board, clearly, honestly and by the rules.”
As the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, Ryan will serve as chairman of the party’s convention in late July, when delegates won through primaries formally elect a nominee.
He added: “I see my role, now that he’s got the plurality [of delegates], he actually won, is pretty much a ceremonial position. But the last thing I am going to do is weigh in and tell delegates what to do.”
Ryan also declined to criticise growing numbers of House and Senate Republicans who are taking a more active role in fomenting revolt, persuading delegates to ignore primary election results or vote for a rule change that could unbind them from backing Trump in Cleveland.
“The last thing I would do is tell anybody to do something that’s contrary to their conscience,” he said. “I get that this is a very strange situation. He’s a very unique nominee.”
The party, Ryan said, “is divided, and I am not going to tell somebody to go against their conscience … this isn’t a top-down party where a handful of people pick the nominee. I have a responsibility, and that is to not try and disunify our party, and disrespect the voters.”
But he also placed responsibility on the delegates chosen by those voters, saying: “It is not my job to tell delegates what to do.”
Ryan stressed that he would lead no revolt himself, and said he was pressing Trump to change his tune and to “run a campaign that we can all be proud of, that is inclusive and aspirational”.
Asked if he thought it was possible for the 70-year-old celebrity businessman to do that, the House speaker replied: “I think he can. I guess the question is whether he chooses to do so or not.”
He added: “If something is done and said that I don’t agree with that I think puts a bad label on conservatism, then I’m going to speak out on it as I have, as I will continue to do, and I hope I don’t have to keep doing.”
Earlier this month the Republican majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said he could still rescind his endorsement of Trump, adding that “it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues”. McConnell has urged Trump to use prepared scripts and change his tone, especially toward minorities, to little effect.
Even in the very unlikely scenario that enough delegates disregard the primary election result and coalesce around another, yet to be determined candidate, the result could split the party and only increase the chances that Hillary Clinton wins the general election in November.
But many Republicans fear the White House is already lost and that the future of the party is at stake. They are aiming to stop Democrats winning back control of Congress, and to prevent Trump from tarnishing the party’s brand.
“It has been my intention to support the Republican nominee,” the moderate Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “But no one can predict the outcome of this thing. So I think things remain reasonably uncertain.”
He added: “To me endorsement is a big embrace. That’s not necessarily going to to be the case with our nominee”
Trump has put a brave face on the mounting talk of rebellion against him – or at least quiet abandonment – even as he slips fast behind Clinton in opinion polls and fundraising.
“I do believe that we can win either way, but it would be nice if we stuck together,” he said in an interview with NBC that was aired after Ryan’s remarks.
He also doubled down on his calls for a ban on Muslim immigration, saying the Orlando shooting showed why the US should “look at” racial profiling of Muslims by law enforcement.
If there is to be a party revolt against Trump, many senior figures believe it needs to come quickly and decisively in Cleveland, or else the party will do irrevocable damage to itself.
“Imagine the Speaker of the House not supporting the duly elected nominee of our party,” Ryan warned, “therefore creating a chasm that will split us in half, which basically helps deny us the White House and strong majorities in Congress.”
But he also hinted he believed a Republican Congress would continue to oppose a President Trump if it came to that.
“There are policies he’s pursuing that I don’t agree with,” Ryan said. “And in the legislative branch – a separate but equal branch of government – we will litigate those things in the future.”