America’s most powerful Republican Party politician has suggested that he does not believe Donald Trump can win the US election.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’ told his party that he is now focused on ensuring Hillary Clinton is not handed a blank cheque as president in a Democratic-controlled Congress.
But Mr Ryan’ s office moved quickly to say that he was not conceding the election, but pro-Trump House members insisted the New York billionaire can still win.
In a conference call with Republican party politicians, Mr Ryan said he would not defend Mr Trump or appear with the Republican presidential candidate for the rest of the campaign.
Several people who were involved with the call said Mr Ryan told House members: “You all need to do what’s best for you in your district.”
In comments on Twitter, Mr Trump responded by saying that Mr Ryan “should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee”.
The remarkable developments came as Mr Trump battled to rescue his campaign after the release last week of a 2005 video in which he is heard bragging about how his fame allowed him to “do anything” to women.
Several leading Republicans have withdrawn their support or called for him to drop out of the race.
Mr Ryan’s message appeared to signal he does not believe in Mr Trump’s ability to turn the campaign around with four weeks until election day, though he did not revoke his endorsement.
He said he was driven by what he thought best for the Republican-led Congress, not himself, according to people who participated on the call.
Mr Ryan said he will “spend his entire energy making sure that Hillary Clinton does not get a blank cheque with a Democrat-controlled Congress”, according to one source.
Mr Ryan added that he was “willing to endure political pressure to help protect our majority”.
In the eyes of many Republican leaders, the recently released tape of a 2005 conversation in which Mr Trump made vulgar, predatory comments about women not only jeopardised his own labouring candidacy, but that of Republicans fighting to hold their majority in the US Senate.
Their commanding majority in the House of Representatives could now be in peril, too.
In a tense second presidential debate between the two on Sunday, Mr Trump claimed Hillary Clinton should be in jail and accused former US president Bill Clinton of being “abusive to women” and claimed Mrs Clinton should be “ashamed” for attacking her husband’s accusers.
Mrs Clinton said the comments made by her Republican rival in the recording represented “exactly who he is”.