STERLING, Va. — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is refusing to back House Speaker Paul Ryan in his upcoming primary election, saying in an interview Tuesday that he is "not quite there yet" in endorsing his party's top-ranking elected official.
Trump also said he was not supporting Sen. John McCain in his primary in Arizona, and he singled out Sen. Kelly Ayotte as a weak and disloyal leader in New Hampshire, a state whose presidential primary Trump won handily.
With Ryan's Wisconsin primary scheduled for next Tuesday, Trump praised the House speaker's underdog opponent, Paul Nehlen, for running "a very good campaign." Trump said that Ryan has sought his endorsement, but that as of now he is only "giving it very serious consideration."
"I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country," Trump said. "We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I'm just not quite there yet. I'm not quite there yet."
Trump's refusal to back Ryan represents an extraordinary breach of political decorum and signals that the Republican Party remains divided two weeks after a national convention in Cleveland staged to showcase party unity.
Donald Trump tweeted a word of thanks to House Speaker Paul Ryan's primary opponent for his "kind words" Monday, a notable shout-out that comes eight days before the primary in Wisconsin.
Trump made his comments during a wide-ranging interview Tuesday afternoon over lunch at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia.
Trump and Ryan have had a difficult and tense relationship over the past few months. Ryan endorsed Trump this spring after he became the presumptive nominee and spoke on his behalf at the convention, but only after a period of public soul-searching.
Ryan has disagreed with Trump on several key issues — including his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States — and issued a statement over the weekend that indirectly took issue with Trump's belittling of the parents of dead U.S. Army captain Humayun Khan.
"Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice," Ryan said in the statement. "Captain Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period."
With wife, Ghazala, at his side, Khizr Khan spoke at last week's Democratic National Convention. He said Trump "smears the character of Muslims" and challenged the Republican nominee's knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
Asked about the Khans, Trump said in Tuesday's interview, "I was viciously attacked on the stage, and I have a right to answer back. That's all I have to say about it."
In making his comments Tuesday, Trump may have been seeking retribution for Ryan's dragging his feet about endorsing Trump in May. Trump's phrasing of his uncertainty about Ryan — "I'm just not quite there yet" — echoes what Ryan told CNN's Jake Tapper in a May interview about endorsing Trump: "I'm just not ready to do that at this point. I'm not there right now."
Nehlen came to Trump's defense for his comments about the Khans, for which Trump thanked him in a tweet Monday night. Trump's shout-out sparked speculation that he might endorse Nehlen.
Asked about this in the Tuesday interview, Trump said that Nehlen "sent me a nice letter and I merely thanked him."
"[Ryan's] opponent is a big fan of what I'm saying — big fan," Trump said. "His opponent, who's running a very good campaign, obviously, I've heard — his opponent sent me a very scholarly and well thought out letter yesterday and all I did was say thank you very much for your very nice letter. You saw my statement."
Trump added, "I'm giving very serious consideration to that whole situation, to Ryan, to Paul."
Recent federal court rulings may change the voting landscape again ahead of the fall presidential election.
On Monday, McCain, a Vietnam war hero, issued a lengthy statement denouncing Trump for his comments about the Khan family. Asked about McCain's rebuke, Trump said, "I haven't endorsed John McCain.
"I've never been there with John McCain because I've always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets," Trump continued. "He has not done a good job for the vets and I've always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets. So I've always had a difficult time with John for that reason, because our vets are not being treated properly. They're not being treated fairly."
McCain is locked in a three-way Republican primary — the election is Aug. 30 and early voting begins this week — against former state senator Kelli Ward and tea party activist Clair Van Steenwyk. A third challenger, Alex Meluskey, suspended his campaign this week.
Trump said he thought it was a mistake for senators to distance themselves from him because of his popularity with the Republican base. He singled out Ayotte, who like McCain condemned Trump's comments about the Khans.
"New Hampshire is one of my favorite places," Trump said. "You have a Kelly Ayotte who doesn't want to talk about Trump, but I'm beating her in the polls by a lot. You tell me. Are these people that should be representing us, OK? You tell me."
Trump continued, "I don't know Kelly Ayotte. I know she's given me no support — zero support — and yet I'm leading her in the polls. I'm doing very well in New Hampshire. We need loyal people in this country. We need fighters in this country. We don't need weak people. We have enough of them. We need fighters in this country. But Kelly Ayotte has given me zero support, and I'm doing great in New Hampshire."