House Speaker Paul Ryan could have invoked any number of conservative icons as he rebuffed a Republican attempt to reinstate earmarks, a practice that allows members of Congress to stuff spending bills with billions of dollars' worth of pet projects. Yet he chose President-elect Trump.

"We just had a 'drain-the-swamp' election," Ryan said, according to reports. "Let's not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later." The phrase by itself doesn't connote enthusiasm for the president-elect. Unrepentant anti-Trump Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., similarly argued, "You can't drain the swamps by feeding the alligators pork."

But "drain the swamp" was one of Trump's slogans for cleaning up Washington. "Isn't it amazing how this phrase has caught on?" Trump asked on the trail in Ohio, admitting he didn't like it at first and comparing it to Frank Sinatra taking a while to warm to his signature song "My Way." All the more appropriate that its use was another sign of warming between Ryan and Trump.

After their first meeting on Capitol Hill, Ryan uttered an even more famous Trump catchphrase. "We are now talking about how we're going to hit the ground running to make sure that we can get this country turned around and make America great again," he told reporters as the president-elect looked on.

How well Trump and Ryan work together will likely determine whether Obamacare is repealed, taxes are cut, immigration and perhaps major entitlement programs are reformed.

A good relationship also means conservatives maintain a foothold on the federal courts, and whether this round of unified Republican control of the federal government is more successful than the last one that ended a decade ago.

"Congressional Republican leaders are in touch with the Trump transition team on the legislative agenda for next year," said a senior congressional aide. "Ryan and Trump talk near-daily and have always had an open line of direct communication with each other throughout the campaign and since Election Day."

Ryan was exuberant the day after Trump's surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton. "Let me just say, this is the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime," the speaker said. "Donald Trump heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard. He connected with — he connected in ways with people no one else did. He turned politics on its head."

The Wisconsin Republican's misgivings about Trump were well-known. Yet many Washington Republicans believe Ryan was impressed by Trump's victory and genuinely excited by the fact Republicans retained their majorities in both houses of Congress.

In fact, Ryan said as much in the aftermath of the big win. "We won more seats than anyone expected, and much of that is thanks to Donald Trump," he declared. "Donald Trump provided the kind of coat tails that got a lot of people over the finish line so that we could maintain our strong House and Senate majorities."

"Drain the swamp" was one of Trump's slogans for cleaning up Washington, D.C. (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner)

Above all, Trump won in Wisconsin, Ryan's home state. Ryan ran ahead of the GOP presidential nominee in his own race, but he failed to turn the Badger State red as Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., also won re-election in a race even many Republicans assumed would end in defeat.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described the "Ryan-Trump relationship" as "awkward to the end." When Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination in May, Ryan declined immediately to endorse him, saying, "I'm not there yet."

Trump hit back by borrowing the phrase when asked whether he would endorse Ryan and several other disloyal Republicans facing primary challenges or competitive re-election bids.

Trump ultimately endorsed Ryan in his primary over a challenger who was an open admirer of the businessman and reality TV star. Weeks before that, Ryan threw his support to Trump and chaired the Republican National Convention that nominated him for president.

At the same time, Ryan mentioned Trump only twice during his convention speech, and told the Wall Street Journal he was "not my kind of conservative" on its opening day.

Ryan seemed on the verge of pulling even nominal support from the Republican nominee after a 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape was leaked, and revealed the GOP nominee speaking vulgarly about his aggressive sexual approach to women.

Ryan canceled an appearance with Trump, told members of the Republican conference that he wasn't going to defend the businessman anymore and advised members "to make the best decision for your election situation" regarding Trump.

In response, Trump derided Ryan's weak leadership and questioned whether the speaker knew how to win. Trump also speculated in October that Ryan might be hoping to run for president himself in 2020 rather than rooting for this year's ticket.

"Ryan was too public in his back-and-forth on Trump," said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "[Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell showed much better political judgment by keeping quiet, both helping behind the scenes and encouraging Republicans to do what they had to do with Trump when things were bad."

Yet the two Republicans were already moving toward burying the hatchet by the time the election rolled around. After FBI Director James Comey re-opened the investigation into Clinton's email server and then indicated he was unlikely to do much with it, Ryan once again urged all Republicans to vote for Trump.

"Our job is not to look backward," Ryan told reporters after the election. "Our job is to look forward, to make President-elect Trump as successful as possible." He claimed that congressional Republicans were now working "hand in glove" with Trump, a description bound to appear in Democratic ads in swing districts in 2018.

Nevertheless, Trump and Ryan need each other. Trump is the least governmentally experienced person in history to assume the presidency. Without some guidance on the legislative process and allies on the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, it will be difficult for him to get anything done.

Trump and Ryan need each other, since the president-elect is the least governmentally-experienced person in history to assume the presidency. (AP Photo)

While Trump calmed many Republicans' concerns simply by winning, he faced unprecedented intraparty opposition. Many congressional Republicans never came around to endorsing him, and some only did so with obvious reluctance.

Ryan is respected by many "Never Trump" conservatives, even though he wasn't one himself, and can help Trump unite the party. Those unifying efforts are already paying dividends, helping Trump present himself as the true titular head of the party.


For Ryan, a Trump presidency, or that of almost any Republican, is an enormous opportunity. Ryan was by most accounts a reluctant speaker. He gradually climbed the ladder, pushing his preferred policies, ascending first to the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee and then taking the gavel at Ways and Means.

In the process, he was able to get his fiscal "roadmap" to expand from what a libertarian magazine called "a plan to balance the budget 50 years from now that will never, ever pass" to the official budget passed by the full House. Since Ryan became speaker while Barack Obama was president, many of his proposals are languishing on the Oval Office desk.

President-elect Trump represents a chance for some of those bills to be signed into law. Ryan's six-point "Better Way" agenda wasn't the same as the populist platform from which Trump won the White House, but on taxes and regulations, the incoming president is closer to the Republican mainstream than any Democrat likely to be elected in his place for the foreseeable future.

Grover Norquist of the pressure group Americans for Tax Reform argued that Trump sometimes blamed immigration and trade for the economic damage done by bad government policies. "We've always had trade," he said. "Taxes and regulations have changed." But when it comes to taxes and regulations themselves, he considers Trump broadly Reaganesque.

On taxes and regulations, the incoming president is closer to the Republican mainstream than any Democrat likely to be elected in his place for the foreseeable future. (iStock Photo)

If accurate, that is important for Ryan. While many influential conservatives see the speaker as a presidential possibility in his own right, he has often seemed to aspire to be a Jack Kemp to someone else's Ronald Reagan: the policy entrepreneur whose programs become law in an administration overseen by someone else. Reagan, after all, was a convert to supply-side economics.

"I can tell you what I got out of Donald Trump today is that this is a man of action," Ryan insisted to Fox News' Bret Baier after a meeting with the president-elect. At the same time, Trump is viewed as ideologically malleable and many of his substantive policy views remain unformed.

While Trump took a different position than Ryan on entitlement reform, promising not to touch Social Security or Medicare, many economic conservatives are working on the transition.

Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is leading Trump's Social Security Administration "landing team." Leppert supported Ryan-style Medicare reform and personal retirement accounts as part of Social Security during a failed Senate race in 2012.

Ryan and Trump also disagree on many immigration policy details. The nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general and discussion of Kris Kobach for a senior position in the Department of Homeland Security suggests immigration hardliners will be influential in a Trump administration.

But Ryan has tried to emphasize border security as common ground, saying he and Trump are "on the same page."

Ryan has tried to emphasize border security as common ground, saying he and Trump are "on the same page." (AP Photo)

That's not to say that there aren't complications in the relationship. While Trump and Ryan have made peace, not all their supporters are so forgiving.

Free-market conservatives remain skeptical of Trump's economic nationalism in general and his stance on trade in particular. They are also concerned he'll woo congressional Democrats with a $1 trillion stimulus package that Republicans would surely oppose if it came from Obama or Clinton.

High-profile Trump supporters equally distrust Ryan. "Why oppose Ryan?" asked pundit Mickey Kaus, a rare liberal who is also an immigration hawk and Trump sympathizer. "He's a true believer in free trade and mass immigration. You don't think he'll sabotage Trump's agenda in the fine print?"

Breitbart News was the main conservative outlet pushing Paul Nehlen's Republican primary race against Ryan this year, which Ryan won by more than 80 points. The website hasn't signed up for the Trump-Ryan unity initiative after the election.

One Breitbart story highlighted an interview Ryan gave to anti-Trump conservative Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes in which the speaker appeared to say the GOP wasn't Trump's party. (Ryan was arguing it was a grassroots party that didn't belong to any one person, adding Trump won the nomination fair and square.)

"Ryan's fawning regard for the president-elect on Wednesday seems markedly different from the Republican speaker's tone just one day prior to Tuesday's election," wrote Breitbart's Julia Hahn.

A second Breitbart story was headlined "GOP lawmakers work behind closed doors to stop Trump's mandate," accompanied by a picture of Ryan and other grinning members of the House Republican leadership team.

The piece alleges that even some of the most conservative Republicans in the lower chamber are not committed to fulfilling Trump's campaign promises on trade and immigration.

Breitbart's hostile coverage of Ryan takes on new importance because the site's erstwhile executive chairman Stephen Bannon is set to become a senior adviser and top strategist in the Trump White House. Bannon reportedly described Republican congressional leaders in terms that wouldn't have been out of place in the Trump "Access Hollywood" tape.

Even though Trump's incoming White House chief of staff, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, is a Ryan ally, Republican congressional staffers wonder if Bannon is in effect pushing these lines of criticism through Breitbart, "directly attacking the speaker of the House and Trump's congressional allies."

At the very least, some speculate Breitbart at least still speaks for Bannon. Does it speak for Trump?

The early Trump administration is shaping up to be something like a coalition government between populists, movement conservatives and moderate Republicans. With Ryan as the most vocal leader of Republicans in Congress, the GOP has a chance to harness the populist energy that put Trump in the White House for conservative ends — if the president lets them.