If President Donald Trump’s intention was to intimidate House Freedom Caucus members with his assertion on Twitter that “we must fight them” in 2018, it didn’t work.
“If somebody can get to the right of me in the primary, God bless him,” Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks said.
The Arizona Republican, who had learned about the president’s tweet from a reporter Thursday morning, provided a blunt response that captures the gist of the Freedom Caucus’ reaction to the threat, although several members didn’t go as far as Franks in stating their thoughts.
But the sentiment is generally shared among Freedom Caucus members, who see themselves as true conservatives and find the idea of drawing challengers further to the right as laughable.
“I don’t know of too many people who can challenge me from the right,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters last week after Trump visited the GOP conference and suggested members who opposed the bill could face primary challenges though he did not directly threaten members during that meeting, several attendees said.
But on Thursday, the president tweeted that the caucus “will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
That prompted Rep. Justin Amash, a Freedom Caucus member, to reply to Trump with his own tweet, saying that “it didn’t take long for the swamp to drain.”
“No shame, Mr. President. Almost everyone succumbs to the D.C. establishment,” the Michigan Republican tweeted.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Thursday that he would let Trump’s tweet speak for itself. But he also said the president and his team will “get the votes from wherever he can” to pass legislation to enact his agenda.
Spicer also indicated that some Freedom Caucus members have let the White House know they are willing to work directly with the president. There are “some promising signs on that,” he added.
Trump’s top spokesman also challenged members of the hard-line conservative group to act in their constituents’ best interests rather than continue insisting in voting as a bloc. And he urged the caucus to avoid, while negotiating legislation, letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Asked to respond to Amash’s tweet, Spicer said Trump was not attempting to bully caucus members. The tweet is “consistent” with the president’s message about the health care bill’s failure since it was pulled last Friday, Spicer said, reiterating that Trump is seeking Republicans and Democrats to pass a bill that aligns with his goals.
While Trump did not elaborate on how he would fight the Freedom Caucus next year, his talk of them needing to “get on the team” suggests the Republican establishment would look to back and potentially recruit primary challengers to run against caucus members who opposed the health care bill.
To that end, the leadership-backed American Action Network ran ads in caucus members’ districts urging them to vote for the GOP leadership’s bill, known as the American Health Care Act, to partially repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.
Freedom Caucus members spoke openly about the network starting a campaign to get people to call their offices in support of the legislation, but they noted that the group’s plan backfired as the vast majority of calls they received were from people urging them to vote “no.”
The idea of establishment-backed candidates unseating a Freedom Caucus member is not unheard of — it happened to Tim Huelskamp in Kansas’ 1st District last cycle. But most Freedom Caucus members don’t see that as much of a threat.
“In my district, we’re very conservative, so if he gets me out office, he’s going to get someone more conservative than me,” Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais said.
However, DesJarlais said he has a good relationship with the president — he was one of the few members who endorsed Trump during the presidential primaries — and he does not believe Trump will follow through on the threat. Nor does DesJarlais believe the tweet indicates his relationship with the White House is suffering.
“My impression of the White House doesn’t come from Trump’s tweets,” he said. “He does that, I don’t really pay much attention to it.”
The Freedom Caucus will likely have some cover from political groups, like Club for Growth and Heritage Action, that opposed the health care bill.
“We — and the members of the House Freedom Caucus — are the people who stood by President Trump in the fall, when many in the House GOP leadership abandoned him,” the conservative Tea Party Patriots political action committee said in a statement. “If President Trump wants to drain the swamp of Washington, DC, he should aim his frustration at those who have been in the swamp the longest, not the ones who are trying to change business as usual in DC.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan offered no defense for the Freedom Caucus when asked about Trump’s tweet during his weekly news conference Thursday.
“I understand the president’s frustration. I share his frustration,” the Wisconsin Republican said, noting that only 10 percent of the GOP conference opposes the health care bill.
Ryan suggested but did not say directly that those 24 members were from the Freedom Caucus. While that figure roughly matched the number of conservatives planning to vote “no” on the health care bill, there were also a significant number of moderate members who had publicly stated they would oppose the measure.
GOP leadership and its allies say that most of the moderates were willing to vote “yes” on the floor if it meant the bill would pass, but there’s no way to verify those claims absent a vote.
Freedom Caucus member Mark Sanford cited former House speaker and Trump ally New Gingrich who said the bloc of opposition, which he estimated was about equally split between Freedom Caucus members and moderates, may have saved Republicans from calamity in next year’s midterms.
“You have a bill that 17 percent of the American public has embraced,” the South Carolina Republican said. “You have a bill that would cast 14 million people off the rolls [by 2018] and 24 million people off the rolls in the next 10 years. Not surprisingly, there’s some resistance to it. So I think this is a case of let’s be careful about shooting the messenger here.”
Sanford, who served as South Carolina’s governor for eight years, said Trump’s tweet was “counterproductive” toward getting Freedom Caucus members on board with the bill.
“As a former chief executive, I always found that carrots were much more effective in the implementation of legislation,” he said, invoking the metaphor of the carrot versus the stick.
In the week since the bill’s failure, Freedom Caucus members have publicly stated their desire to continue working on improvements to the bill that would get them to a “yes.”
Virginia Rep. Dave Brat said that message seemingly hasn’t reached the president.
“Whoever is in the president’s ear isn’t giving him the full story on what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
“What he’s probably not being told is we were that close to ‘yes,’” he added. “We have to lower the price of health care. That’s it, that’s the bottom line. We’re OK — and we’ve been very clear — we’re OK on pre-existing conditions, $100 billion for high-risk pools back home. We’re even OK, even though we don’t like it, having this huge new federal structure. … We’ve negotiated and come way over here.”
Brat said the Freedom Caucus is still “in range” of getting to “yes” and is negotiating with moderates to find a solution both sides can accept.
Another thing the president’s counsel apparently is not communicating to him is Senate leaders saying that they are not going to use reconciliation to repeal the current law, Brat said.
“If he hears that, I think he’s going to align the eye over on that body way more than on us, who fought for him the whole way through,” the Virginia lawmaker said.
Franks also defended the Freedom Caucus’ position, saying it wanted just one thing — for Republicans to keep their promise to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law But he didn’t point any blame at Trump.
“I think Congress failed the president rather than the other way around and I can understand his frustration,” he said.
DesJarlais, however, said the Freedom Caucus is going to keep doing what it’s doing because members all believe in the conservative values they’re trying to represent.
As far as Trump’s urge for them to get on the team, DesJarlais said, “We’re elected as Republicans to put forth good conservative policy, and I’m on board as soon as we start doing that.”