President Trump and Paul Ryan

President Donald Trump shakes hands with House Speaker Paul Ryan, center, while Vice President Mike Pence, left, joins the applause during an event Dec. 20 at the White House marking passage of the GOP tax bill. PHOTO BY MANUEL BALCE CENETA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Manuel Balce Ceneta

It has always been said of Newt Gingrich that the former speaker of the House is what a stupid person thinks a smart person sounds like.

So what of the current speaker of the House?

Paul Ryan is what Donald Trump thinks a smart person sounds like.

Buried deep in "Fire and Fury," author Michael Wolff’s blockbuster book on the Trump White House, is a rather lengthy examination of the Trump-Ryan relationship that is damning for both the speaker (who fancies himself as something of a policy wonk) and the president (who, painfully, finds it necessary to claim that he is “a very stable genius”).

In this section of the book, Wolff does not deal in revelations. Rather, he delves more deeply into what we already knew: that Steve Bannon had plotted in the early days of Trump’s presidency to replace Ryan as speaker with an ally of the former White House chief strategist — North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows, a leader of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.

The plot’s success or failure would be decided by Trump. The president had to get on board with the plan and make it clear he wanted Ryan out.

That seemed plausible, as Wolff recounts, because of what the author describes as “Trump’s distaste for Ryan.” Though Trump “had paid no real attention to Ryan’s actual positions,” the president-elect nurtured a very “personal resentment” toward the speaker. “Ryan had become the effective symbol of the Republican establishment’s horror and disbelief about Trump,” writes Wolff. “Adding insult to injury, Ryan had even achieved some moral stature by dissing Trump (and, as usual, he considered anybody’s gain at his expense a double insult).”

What Bannon did not count on was the fact that Trump’s election as president would change Ryan from a perceived rival into a faithful, if agonizingly inept, Trump retainer.

As the billionaire began to assume power, Ryan seemed particularly vulnerable. “(The) election destroyed Paul Ryan, at least in Steve Bannon’s eyes,” writes Wolff, who had extraordinary access to Trump’s inner circle — especially the president’s chief strategist. But Bannon wanted to complete the process by deposing the Wisconsinite. “Publicly breaking Paul Ryan,” we are told, “was the obvious and necessary step.”

So how did Ryan save himself? By becoming the most earnest and engaged of Trump’s toadies.

“Ryan, ‘rising to a movie-version level of flattery and sucking up painful to witness,' according to one senior Trump aide, was able to delay his execution,” writes Wolff, who explains: “Trump saw a chastened Ryan as suddenly and satisfyingly abject, submissive, and useful. Bannon wanted to get rid of the entire Republican establishment; Trump was wholly satisfied that it now seemed to bend to him.”

This tragically insecure president thinks anyone who praises him is intellectually sound. And Ryan poured on the praise.

After Trump’s first postelection meeting with Ryan, Wolff reports, the president-elect declared: “He’s quite a smart guy. A very serious man. Everybody respects him.”

But, of course, Ryan was not as smart as Trump — or Ryan — thought.

Wolff offers the insight that Ryan was (and is) “a benighted figure who has no ability to see around corners.”

The speaker convinced Trump to make elimination of the Affordable Care Act a top priority. As part of the project, Wolff reports, the president bent to Ryan’s prodding to make Congressman Tom Price — a scandal-plagued Georgia Republican whose entire political career seemed to be focused on enriching himself — the secretary of Health and Human Services.

Appreciate these insights? Get Cap Times opinion sent daily to your inbox

As the debate over “repealing and replacing” the ACA advanced, Ryan offered the administration “absolute assurances of his hold on the legislation,” explains Wolff. “It was, he told the president during his several daily calls, a ‘done deal.’ Trump’s trust in Ryan rose still higher, and it seemed to become in his own mind proof that he had achieved a kind of mastery over the Hill. If the president had been worried, he was worried no more. Done deal. The White House, having had to sweat hardly at all, was about to get a big victory …”

As history records, there was no big victory. “Repeal and replace” crashed and burned. And Price became the first Trump Cabinet member to resign after it was revealed that the man Ryan had positioned as the president’s point man on health care was a high-flying grifter who burned through tax dollars in order to maintain his lavish lifestyle.

Ryan, it turned out, was not quite the legislative leader that Trump imagined. Rather, he was the overwhelmed junior manager who promised big things but frequently failed to deliver.

Even when the Trump-Ryan partnership claimed a “victory,” Ryan’s determination to reward campaign donors rather than serve the common good turned people against the administration’s agenda. Reporting on a late December Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the Journal noted: “The Republican tax-cut bill has grown more unpopular in the two months it has taken to usher it through Congress, and few people believe it will provide relief for middle-class families …”

It may still be that Paul Ryan is what a “very stable genius” like Donald Trump thinks a smart person sounds like. But the reality is that the Trump-Ryan relationship is evidence, as Wolff suggests, of both men’s weaknesses. “It was not just that Ryan had been willing to bow to Trump,” explains the author, “but that Trump was willing to bow to his own fears about how little he actually knew about being president.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. Nichols is the co-author, along with Dave Zweifel, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Associate Editor of the Cap Times