By Scott Wong - 10-12-16 06:00 AM EDT
Donald Trump's flailing presidential campaign has become a threat to Paul Ryan.
Just weeks before the elections, Trump is training his fire on the Republican House Speaker after Ryan essentially conceded that the outsider GOP nominee had no chance of winning the White House next month.
By attacking Ryan on Twitter as disloyal and a "weak and ineffectual leader," Trump is setting up the Wisconsin lawmaker as the scapegoat for a possible Election Day disaster. Trump's actions could turn his millions of die-hard followers against Ryan and ruin the 46-year-old Speaker's political prospects.
In effect, Trump is trying to extinguish one of the GOP's brightest young stars and tarnish the political brand of a man many mainstream Republicans still hope will one day run for president.
From his bully pulpit, Ryan is perhaps best-positioned to lead the party out of the ashes of a Trump defeat on Nov. 8.
That's if Ryan, Mitt Romney's 2012 vice presidential pick, even gets the opportunity.
A Democratic wave election, spurred by a backlash against Trump, could sweep Ryan right out of the Speaker's office.
While such a result remains unlikely, Democrats retaking the House is a possibility both parties are now considering.
Even if the GOP holds the House, Ryan will still have to contend with Trump's grassroots acolytes and his loyalists in Congress - some of whom may call for the Speaker's ouster in January. That public floor vote will take place a little more than a year after conservatives tossed out his predecessor, former Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).
After Ryan said this week he was done defending Trump, Fox News host Sean Hannity declared on his show that Ryan and other GOP leaders' "days are numbered."
"I think the old Republican order is dead. It's not coming back. It is over," said Hannity, a fervent Trump backer. "And Paul Ryan won't be Speaker [for] very long."
On a conference call this week, at least eight House Republicans brazenly scolded Ryan when he announced he would not defend or campaign with Trump anymore after a 2005 recording emerged of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. Only two colleagues sided with Ryan, sources said.
"I think Ryan probably will be hurt regardless of the election outcome," said one of Ryan's House GOP colleagues, a Trump backer who listened to the call.
"I think Paul comes out the biggest loser," added another House Republican who described Ryan as a friend. "If Trump loses, Paul and the establishment will be blamed by the grass roots."
The Speaker's aides and allies are downplaying the latest dust-up between Trump and Ryan, saying they don't believe Trump's attacks will cause permanent damage to Ryan's future political prospects.
"Paul Ryan is focusing the next month on defeating Democrats, and all Republicans running for office should probably do the same," Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said in response to Trump's series of tweets lashing out at Ryan and other GOP elites.
It's remarkable - but not entirely surprising - that the Republican standard-bearer would launch a civil war against his own party's leaders four weeks out from the presidential election.
That Trump is spending significant time and energy 27 days before the election bashing fellow Republicans may suggest the White House race is already over. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll out Tuesday showed Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton by 9 points.
And despite a decent showing by Trump at Sunday's debate, scores of House and Senate Republicans dumped their party's nominee over the weekend after a recording surfaced of Trump bragging to TV host Billy Bush about trying to have sex with a married woman and that he can grab women "by the p----" because he's famous.
Ryan, a devout Catholic and father of three school-aged children, said he was "sickened" by the Trump tape and disinvited him from a campaign rally in his home state the next day. Days later, Ryan told colleagues he would no longer defend or campaign with Trump, saying he would focus all of his efforts on preserving the House and Senate majorities.
But he stopped short of formally revoking his endorsement of Trump. And that's where many so-called Never Trump Republicans also could have a problem with a potential Ryan presidential bid in four or eight years.
Unlike Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a onetime 2016 presidential candidate who never came around to endorsing Trump and has vowed not to vote for him, Ryan did embrace and endorse Trump earlier in the year. Ryan, however, conceded during the campaign that Trump had made racist comments about a Mexican-American federal judge, promoted an unconstitutional ban on Muslims entering the country and gotten a little too cozy with white supremacists.
GOP strategist and CNN commentator Ana Navarro, a vocal Trump critic and Ryan ally, acknowledged that the Speaker is in the "toughest of positions." But the Miami-based Republican seemed almost gleeful that Ryan was finally treating Trump "like a Zika mosquito" and said she hoped she could back his presidential run some day.
"There is not an ounce of doubt in my mind that Paul is appalled by Trump. Paul is all the things Trump is not: humble, grounded, policy-focused, decent, soft-spoken, respectful and a uniter. And yet, much of his future may be defined by how he reacted to Trump," Navarro told The Hill.
"As someone that hopes to one day support Paul if he runs for president, I am downright gleeful to see Trump come completely unhinged and pick a fight with him," she added. "I hope he keeps it up until Election Day."