Speaker Ryan On Sexual Harassment: 'We Are Having A Watershed Moment In This Country'

Nov 30, 2017
Originally published on December 1, 2017 8:52 am

Updated at 8:15 p.m. ET

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., says the rash of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations coming to light could end up being a "watershed moment" in changing the culture — including on Capitol Hill — that has covered them up far too long.

"We are having a watershed moment in this country. I think this is a defining moment in this country. And I think it needs to be a defining moment in this country," Ryan told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep in an interview on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

"I think we're all horrified at these stories we've been seeing unfold in the last few weeks. I think we're all realizing that sexual harassment in America is absolutely pervasive and it's got to go and we need to end it," Ryan continued. "And nowhere more is this important to set a standard and an example than elected officials. We should be held to a high standard."

Politicians in both parties have been accused of sexual misconduct in recent weeks. On Thursday, Ryan called for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to resign after a former aide made public her allegations of sexual harassment against the veteran lawmaker. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also called on Conyers to step down. The Michigan Democrat has been hospitalized for stress.

Another accuser also came forward on Thursday against Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., alleging that he groped her during a 2003 photo opportunity, bringing his total accusers to five women who say the senator groped or forcibly kissed them in recent weeks. The Senate Ethics Committee confirms it has launched an initial inquiry into the allegations against Franken.

Meanwhile, Republicans are continuing to grapple with Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault when they were teens and he was in his 30s. Several women say he pursued them romantically, and one woman said he had sexually assaulted her when she was 14.

President Trump himself was accused of sexual assault by several women during the 2016 campaign, allegations he continues to deny. And in a 2005 Access Hollywood tape that surfaced just ahead of the election Trump bragged about groping and forcibly kissing women. According to reports, Trump has now begun to privately assert that tape was a fake, despite acknowledging its veracity last year.

Inskeep asked Ryan about the differences between the allegations against Moore — which the House speaker reiterated he believed were "very, very credible" — and the accusations against Trump.

The speaker said he was "focused on Congress" because that's where Moore wants to go. "My job here as speaker of the House is to help make sure that Congress is an institution that we're proud of and that's what I'm focused on," he said.

Asked again about the differences, Ryan said, "I haven't spent my time reviewing the difference in these two cases."

Ryan admitted, "It's no secret that [Trump] and I have had our differences of opinions," but he underscored they still align on policy issues and goals.

"What I see is a president who is fighting for the things that I'm fighting for. I see a president who's fighting for an agenda that will make a positive difference in people's lives," Ryan said. "Is this president unconventional? No two ways about it. He's very unconventional. But if we make good by the American people by actually improving their lives and fixing problems and finding solutions that are bothering them? That's a good thing."

All these recent political allegations are in addition to women coming forward with stories of sexual assault against high-profile Hollywood moguls such as Harvey Weinstein and journalists like NBC's Matt Lauer, CBS' Charlie Rose and top NPR executives as well.

Ryan told NPR that, as a father, the issue is a personal one for him as he has watched the swirl of scandal over the past few weeks.

"I want my daughter to grow up in a country — she's 15 years old — where she is empowered and respected. Wherever she goes, wherever she works, and whatever she does. And I think nowhere should that be more obvious and apparent than working here on Capitol Hill," Ryan said.

"So I think here in Congress we should set ourselves to standards that we expect of other people," the House speaker added. "We should set high standards for ourselves, so that we can be role models and set examples, and clearly people have been falling short of that, and I think we always have to endeavor to do a better job on that."

Congress has recently passed legislation to adopt mandatory training on harassment and discrimination for lawmakers and Capitol Hill employees. In a news conference on Thursday, Ryan applauded the legislation but also said, "This is an important step, but it's one step."

Steve Inskeep's interview with Speaker Paul Ryan will air on Morning Edition on Friday. Morning Edition senior editor Miranda Kennedy and producer Jacob Pinter contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: House Speaker Paul Ryan stepped into a spare room at the Capitol yesterday.

PAUL RYAN: This was - yeah, this is the Board of Education. It's where Rayburn did all that stuff.

INSKEEP: The Board of Education - a name applied by past speakers of the House. You know, other lawmakers would be told, come have a drink. Get educated on how things work. Beneath the chandelier, Speaker Ryan settled into a chair with water to talk over issues from tax reform to President Trump.

It's a video interview we're releasing at npr.org, and it came at a fraught moment. A national uprising over sexual harassment has reached Congress. The Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had just called for Congressman John Conyers to resign. He's the lawmaker revealed to have made a secret settlement of a claim, apparently one of many, paid by the House.

RYAN: I think we're having a watershed moment in this country. I think this is a defining moment in this country, and I think it needs to be a defining moment in this country. I think we're all horrified at the stories we've been seeing unfold in the last few weeks. I think we're all realizing that sexual harassment in America is absolutely pervasive, and it's got to go, and we need to end it. And nowhere more is this important to set a standard and example than elected officials. We should be held to a high standard.

So to that end, we've been holding hearings on this particular issue for how Congress governs itself. We've got another hearing next week. We're reviewing all of the systems - the procedures and the sense of accountability - so that we can review the entire soup to nuts system we have in place and where upgrades and improvements can be had. We have more steps to go.

INSKEEP: Do you believe that when Congress - when taxpayers pay a settlement for a member of Congress that the public should know...

RYAN: I do. I think - we're also trying to get data on the settlements. We're trying to figure out what claims are paid to whom. And what was the nature of these claims? The point is that some of the victims want that. So you have to remember, there are...

INSKEEP: OK.

RYAN: ...Victim rights issues here as well. So this is not as simple as it seems because of victims' rights.

INSKEEP: You said that public officials should be held to a very high standard. Can you define that for me a little bit?

RYAN: Well, that's a good question. I think the standard you want is - I want my daughter to grow up in a country - she's 15 years old - where she is empowered and respected wherever she goes and wherever she works and whatever she does. And I think nowhere should that be more obvious and apparent than working here in Capitol Hill. So I think here in Congress, we should set ourselves to standards that we expect of other people, and we should set high standards for ourselves so that we can be role models and set examples. And, clearly, people have been falling short of that.

INSKEEP: How bad is it?

RYAN: I don't know the answer to that yet.

INSKEEP: How are you going to find out?

RYAN: I think we're finding out just like the rest of Americans. We just found out about John Conyers about a week ago. So I think we're just finding out about some of these things, which are, quite frankly, very disturbing.

INSKEEP: You quite early called for Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate, to withdraw from the race after a number of accusations were made against him.

RYAN: It's because I believe those allegations are credible.

INSKEEP: What is the difference between his case and the case of President Trump, who was also accused by a number of women and also denied it?

RYAN: I think that Roy Moore - I don't know if - I'm focused on Congress. Roy Moore is trying to come to Congress. My job here as Speaker of the House is to help make sure that Congress is an institution that we're proud of. And that's what I'm focused on. He's running for Congress, and I think the allegations against him were very, very credible.

INSKEEP: Is there a difference between those two cases?

RYAN: I don't know the answer to that. I haven't spent my time reviewing the difference in these two cases.

INSKEEP: Let me ask another question about the president, if I might, Mr. Speaker, because you talked about holding people to a high standard. In 2012, you gave a convention speech for Mitt Romney in which you talked about his high character as being above reproach. Is the president meeting that high standard?

RYAN: Look. It's no secret that he and I have had our difference of opinions. It's no secret that I've shared my opinions about his tweets and the rest. But what I see is a president who is fighting for the things that I'm fighting for. I see a president who's fighting for an agenda that will make a positive difference in people's lives. Is this president unconventional? No two ways about it. He's very unconventional. But if we make good by the American people by actually improving their lives and fixing problems, that's a good thing.

INSKEEP: How well do you think Congress is doing at keeping the president in check?

RYAN: Well, I think it's really important that we respect the balance of power between the two branches. I think on this front, the president's been actually very helpful on this. For instance, the executive orders that he's put in place since taking office rolled back a lot of the executive orders from the last administration that we believe did violence to the separation of powers.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about a couple of issues where it can be said the president is not following the intent of Congress. Congress passed sanctions on Russia for interfering in the election in 2016. It appears the administration has moved, but they're moving behind schedule, behind the legal timeline. Do you believe that's going to happen?

RYAN: I do, and I don't - I can't speak to the specifics of the timeline. I haven't been briefed on that.

INSKEEP: Are you confident that this president will be vigilant about Russian interference in the next U.S. election?

RYAN: Yeah, because we're going to make sure that that happens. I think it's really - this is why we have investigations here, among other reasons - is to get to the bottom of not just, what did Russia do? - but how did they do it, and how do we prevent it from happening again? And then how do we share it with our allies?

INSKEEP: Although the chief executive has referred to everything you just described as a hoax.

RYAN: Well, I can't speak to that, only to speak that I believe our intelligence - I think he's also said he believes his intelligence community, so I'm not going to go for the tit for tat based on...

INSKEEP: But it gets...

RYAN: ...This.

INSKEEP: It gets to the question of whether you have confidence and why you would have confidence...

RYAN: I'll tell you what I believe.

INSKEEP: ...That people do what's necessary.

RYAN: I believe Russia did meddle with our elections. I believe we need to do more to make sure that they don't do it again. I believe consequences need to occur for that. Otherwise, they're going to keep doing this. And we have been passing these bills into law, and he's signed these bills into law. So I feel confident that we're going to make a positive difference in this area.

INSKEEP: Are you going to have a government shutdown on December 8?

RYAN: I don't think so. We'll see what the Senate Democrats do. I wish that our Democratic colleagues would choose to participate in the negotiations that we've been having. Now, we were negotiating. They chose to pull out of the negotiations at the beginning of this week.

INSKEEP: You're referring to a meeting with the president.

RYAN: That's right. So...

INSKEEP: They pulled out after the president said there's no point in meeting, essentially.

RYAN: Ah.

INSKEEP: He said there was no room for a deal, I believe.

RYAN: I think that he was probably posturing, and I think the Democrats chose to just not participate, and we haven't spoken to them since. And I think that that's walking away from the table. Look, I didn't agree with a lot of the stuff Barack Obama said, but whenever he asked me to come around to the White House to talk about a bill to negotiate something, I always went. So I think it's just - speaks to how our system works. Congress passes a law. The president signs a law. In order to get a law into law, you've got to negotiate with the president.

INSKEEP: Would you speak for a moment to people on the other side of the divide who look at Washington and see a president who, in their view, is out of control at best and a Congress that's not minding the store?

RYAN: You know, I would say, look at the House of Representatives. We passed more bills in the first 10 months of this administration than the first 10 months of Obama, Clinton and both Bushes. Unfortunately for us, over 300 of them are still piling up in the Senate because they have these filibusters. But we've had the most productive House of Representatives in the modern era.

The other point you mention - people on the other side of the divide who didn't vote for Donald Trump, who have concerns about Donald Trump - this is the system we have. Government is working. Things are getting done. And we see ourselves here in Congress as sort of the ballast in the ship, making sure the ship of state floats in the right direction, goes in the right direction. And that is why we're focusing not on the controversy of the day but on the problems that people face each and every day. And that's why we're working on things like tax relief.

INSKEEP: Mr. Speaker, thanks very much.

RYAN: Great. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He talked to us yesterday at the Capitol. And elsewhere in today's program, we discuss the tax bill that passed the House and is now hanging by a thread in the Senate. We've been releasing video of that talk, as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.