As the dust settled on last week’s blooper reel-worthy failure to pass the GOP health care bill ― the fruits of seven-years worth of Republican labor to fashion a replacement for the Affordable Care Act ― the inevitable question arose: Where does everyone go from here? House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) bill, which he pulled Friday afternoon to avoid a more humiliating public-execution-by-vote, had been largely done in by intra-party disagreement driven mainly by the House Freedom Caucus, which had enough leverage to doom the enterprise. Moving forward would obviously require the healing of these divisions.
Nevertheless, by Tuesday, members of both sides of the fractious GOP caucus seemed willing to revisit the matter and push through to an agreement. As The New York Times’ Robert Pear and Jeremy Peters reported, House Republicans and the White House “restarted negotiations,” and renewed hopes shone in statements on both sides. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) told the Times, “I think everyone wants to get to yes and support President Trump.” And Ryan echoed those determinations:
“We’re not going to retrench into our corners or put up dividing lines,” Mr. Ryan said after a meeting of House Republicans was dominated by talk of how to restart health negotiations. “There’s too much at stake to get bogged down in all that,” he added.
GOP legislators have since struggled to maintain even this meager level of optimism. But on Thursday morning, the effort to revive a health care deal took another hit after President Donald Trump decided unilaterally that everyone was definitely going to “retrench into their corners” and “get bogged down in all that.”
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, [and] fast,” tweeted Trump, “We must fight them, [and Democrats], in 2018.”
So, I realize this phrase is getting a real workout in the early weeks of the Trump administration, but: that escalated quickly. It’s not yet April, and Trump is doling out primary threats to members of his own party? Bear in mind, Trump had only spent about three weeks attempting to negotiate this health care deal before bailing. It can take longer than three weeks to close on a new home, something thousands of Americans do every week. It’s madness to see Trump looking to go nuclear on his antagonists this soon into his tenure. (It makes you wonder what might happen when literally going nuclear is among his options.)
One also has to wonder: Has Trump now settled on the House Freedom Caucus as the target of his recriminations? Because, over the course of six days, he has spat his anger in every conceivable direction.
As The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported, Trump called up the Times of his own volition hours after the bill was pulled and painted Democrats as the real culprit, fuming, “The good news is they now own health care. They now own Obamacare ... and when it explodes, they’ll come to me to make a deal.”
(An interesting and hilarious tangent worth noting is that Thursday morning, after he’d assailed the Freedom Caucus on Twitter, Trump added this 140-character outburst: “The failing @nytimes has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?” That he personally initiated an interview with the paper in his hour of need is something we can all look forward to seeing The New York Times’ lawyers note in their own defense.)
And on the day after the GOP’s American Health Care Act was pulled, Trump was urging his Twitter followers to tune in and watch Jeanine Pirro’s show that night on Fox News ― which kicked off in the 9 p.m. hour with Pirro saying, “My opening statement: Paul Ryan needs to step down as speaker of the House. This is not on President Trump.” Since then, representatives of Ryan’s office, as well as the Trump White House, have insisted up and down that nobody should read the rather obvious implication of the president pointedly urging his most ardent fans to be in front of their televisions as Pirro’s show opened. On Fox News Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told host Chris Wallace that it was all just a funny coincidence.
“Oh, come on,” replied Wallace.
But the oh-come-ons just keep coming on. Now, it’s the House Freedom Caucus’ turn in the barrel. It’s worth noting that Trump’s Thursday moment of aggro is not by any means the first shot he’s fired in the Freedom Caucus’ direction. “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare,” tweeted Trump on Sunday. A day later, he stabbed out another missive, aimed their way: “The Republican House Freedom Caucus was able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. After so many bad years they were ready for a win!”
However, it’s one thing to merely snipe about the Freedom Caucus on Twitter ― threatening its members with a primary election challenge is another matter entirely. And it’s really not clear that Trump has thought all of this through. (I know, that’s an evergreen sentiment as well.) The tidal forces of our politics typically work against the party in the White House during the midterm elections, in that the out-party tends to gain more seats. Right now, the way Democratic voters are sorted in already-gerrymandered districts should be enough to preserve GOP majorities in the House, but it sure would suit the Democratic Party’s fancy if Trump were to actively work to unseat his own party’s incumbents.
Besides, as the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison points out, it might be a worse outcome for Trump if he takes this big swing at the Freedom Caucus and misses:
The bigger danger for Trump is that he will be ignored and these members will coast to re-election (as most incumbents usually do anyway), and that will show how little influence he has in his own party. Trump also misunderstands the House members he is trying to bully if he thinks that going after them publicly like this will make them “get on the team.” Trying to intimidate the members into falling in line will more likely make them less cooperative, because many of them will take as a test of conviction. Beyond that, it will allow them to separate themselves from Trump in the eyes of their voters. That might make some of them vulnerable to a primary challenge, but at this point distance from Trump will help many of them in a general election.
“Trump operates as if he were well-liked and held in high esteem by most Americans,” writes Larison, “That is not the case.”
Indeed, we’re talking about a president whose major accomplishments thus far include near-constant chaos, a gigantic public legislative failure, and approval ratings that are setting all the wrong records. Where does Trump get the notion that he has leverage with Freedom Caucus members, or the pull to unseat them? How would a primary campaign against these particular legislators even work? Their constituents sent them to Washington to be anti-establishment insurgents. Isn’t that what Trump purports to be as well? One key advantage that the members of the Freedom Caucus have over Trump is that they have come by their ideological leanings honestly, and their voters have fully bought in.
Besides, spearheading a primary challenge against some 30-odd Republicans is a task that would require a lot of time and energy. Considering the fact that Trump couldn’t hack three weeks of health care reform negotiations before throwing in the towel, I doubt anyone in the Freedom Caucus is particularly fearful of his stamina.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.