President Trump effectively declared war Thursday on the House Freedom Caucus, the powerful group of hard-line conservative Republicans who blocked the health-care bill, vowing to “fight them” in the 2018 midterm elections.
In a morning tweet, Trump warned that the Freedom Caucus would “hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast.” He grouped its members, all of them Republican, with Democrats in calling for their political defeat — an extraordinary incitement of intraparty combat from a sitting president.
There are about three dozen members of the Freedom Caucus, and most of them were elected or reelected comfortably in solidly-Republican districts. With his tweet, Trump seemed to be encouraging primary challenges to each of them in next year’s elections. Asked to elaborate on Trump’s threat, the White House had no immediate comment.
“Nothing to add at this time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “The president’s tweet speaks for itself.”
Trump and his White House advisers have been frustrated by the intransigence of Freedom Caucus members, led by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). Trump lobbied them intensively to support the GOP plan to replace former president Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, only to see the bill collapse last Friday after Meadows and some of his allies said they would not vote for it.
Trump’s threat comes as Republican leaders are bracing for a month of potential GOP infighting over spending priorities. Congress must pass a spending bill by April 28 to avert a government shutdown, but the path ahead, as in recent spending battles on Capitol Hill, is narrow and filled with obstacles.
Beyond that, the same divide that derailed the health-care legislation could imperil the next marquee legislation Trump wants to tackle: tax reform.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus member, said the break with Trump on the health-care legislation was based on real policy differences, not a lack of loyalty.
“The president can say what he wants and that’s fine. But we’re focused on the legislation,” Jordan told reporters.
Asked if the president’s tweet signaled that talks of rekindling the health bill had hit a wall, Jordan said: “Look, I’m an American. I’m always optimistic. The glass is half full, right?”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an ally of the House Freedom Caucus, said in an interview that “lines of communication are still open” between caucus members and the White House. Asked to respond to Trump’s threat, Paul said he thought the White House could reach a compromise and stopped short of criticizing Trump’s tactics.
“I can only control my own words and my point of view is I think we still have a chance for compromise,” Paul said.
Looking to the midterms, Paul said, “One of the biggest risks to Republicans in 2018 would be voting for a health-care plan that raises people’s insurance premiums and has less people with insurance. I think we need to get it right and I’m going to continue to be one of those that says don’t just pass anything, let’s get it right.”
Trump and his aides have spoken publicly in recent days about reaching out to conservative Democrats to help move the administration’s agenda if Freedom Caucus members remain a hindrance in the House.
But given the poisoned atmosphere on Capitol Hill, many analysts have suggested Trump is likely to make limited headway there and would benefit from bringing Freedom Caucus members in line.
Michael Steel, who was a senior aide to then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said there potential in some districts for Trump to dislodge Freedom Caucus members if he puts his political organization behind the effort.
“If the president chooses to support primary challengers to House members who’ve been unhelpful, it wouldn’t necessarily be an ideological challenge,” Steel said. “It would be based on loyalty to the president, or lack thereof.”
But Steel added: “You don’t necessarily have to wait for 2018 for this to have an effect. Even the threat could work in the short term.”
Mike DeBonis and David Weigel contributed to this report.