Amid Trump's Assaults, Freedom Caucus Hopes for Truce
President Trump brought his own arsenal this week to a familiar fray in Washington: the Republican Party’s circular firing squad.
The president’s weapon of choice, of course, is Twitter — and Thursday he unleashed his social media fury on the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whom he and Republican leaders have blamed for stalling their American Health Care Act.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast,” Trump tweeted. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
As the AHCA unraveled last week, Freedom Caucus members took pains to praise the president for his leadership and negotiating skills — no doubt bearing in mind the composition of their congressional districts, where Trump remains popular. They continued this approach in light of his Twitter offensive Thursday, avoiding any outright criticism of the president.
“I’m not here to assign blame to anyone,” Rep. Jim Jordan told reporters on Capitol Hill.
But Trump was. Later, he called out Jordan by name in a tweet, along with his Freedom Caucus colleagues Raul Labrador and Mark Meadows, the group’s chairman.
The attacks reflect a paralyzing bind for Trump and GOP leaders: Without buy-in from at least some of the Freedom Caucus, they do not have the votes to advance major legislation with Republican support alone. Meanwhile, the Freedom Caucus has not responded to normal political incentives or pressures in the past, presenting no clear path forward.
“The only way that you're going to neutralize the Freedom Caucus is for the president to get involved,” said Al Simpson, former chief of staff to Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s OMB director and a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus during his years in Congress. “I don’t think the [House] leadership can do anything, because you’d make martyrs out of them.”
“I’m going to sit back and get some popcorn and watch this,” Simpson added.
If the fight promises to be messy, it puts Trump squarely back in his comfort zone. He faces a steep learning curve to build his network in Washington and advance legislation through the mucky channels of Congress, as the AHCA debacle made clear. But he is deeply familiar with the art of political messaging and counterpunching.
“When you attack him,” Melania Trump said of her husband on the campaign trail last year, “he will punch back 10 times harder.”
But it is unclear how effective this approach will be with Freedom Caucus members, some of whom might become even more entrenched in response to Trump’s attacks.
“Goading the Freedom Caucus to get on board through social media, how effective that will be, I don’t know. It doesn’t affect me,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, one member of the group. “...Some may blow up even more, because that’s just how they roll. I see it for what it is: a tool being used by President Trump to influence the activities in Congress.”
But Twitter is not the sole tool at Trump’s disposal, and there is some speculation that he will supplement his tweets with a true political blitz — including advertising and campaign-like swings through members’ districts. He reportedly threatened as much when the health-care push sputtered, sending Mulvaney to tell Rep. Mark Sanford: "'The president asked me to look you square in the eyes and to say that he hoped that you voted ‘no’ on this bill so he could run [a primary challenger] against you in 2018,'" Sanford told the Post and Courier.
Republican lawmakers would have some reason to doubt Trump’s sway at this moment: With his presidency stumbling out of the gate, his approval has lagged in the low to mid-forties. Still, the president remains popular among Republican voters, and in particular among the most conservative contingent — suggesting he could weaponize his influence in the districts of Freedom Caucus members, with the sheer weight of the presidency also working to his advantage.
In the race unfolding now to fill Mulvaney’s seat in Congress, “everyone’s saying, ‘We’re here to help President Trump get his agenda through,’” Simpson said. “It’s pretty clear the president is still pretty popular.”
That might be why, as the president has declared war on the Freedom Caucus, those lawmakers have continued to call for a truce.
“Freedom Caucus stood with you when others ran,” Labrador tweeted at Trump on Thursday. “Remember who your real friends are. We're trying to help you succeed.”
The next test might be whether Republicans can revive their comatose health-care push in the coming weeks — this time, with support from the Freedom Caucus.
“The president is making a point: Don’t slow down this agenda,” said Duncan. “I think he is signaling the health-care debate isn't over, and we need to get it done.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.