It took President Donald Trump a few days to decide who to blame for the collapse of the Republicans’ Obamacare replacement bill.
But by Thursday, it was clear he had settled on the House’s ultraconservative Freedom Caucus. What’s more: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who once all but disowned Trump, has signaled that he approves of the president’s crusade.
Trump broadcast his decision on his favorite medium, tweeting what seemed like a threat of electoral retaliation against Freedom Caucus members.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” he wrote.
He followed up with slightly milder tweets calling out several of the faction’s members.
If Reps. Mark Meadows (N.C.), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Raul Labrador (Idaho) “would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform,” Trump tweeted.
The president intermittently criticized the House Freedom Caucus in the days after he and Ryan withdrew the health care bill ahead of a House vote scheduled for last Friday.
But he had also publicly blamed congressional Democrats, despite never reaching out to them. And many people understood his tweet instructing people to watch a specific Fox News show to be tacit disapproval of Ryan, as the host called on the speaker to resign.
Trump’s steady volley of comments aimed at the Freedom Caucus suggest that he has finally homed in on the recalcitrant group of conservatives as the culprits for the health care debacle ― and decided to make them the focus of his persuasion efforts.
New reporting has revealed that Trump’s tweets about the Freedom Caucus were not a case of spontaneous venting. Senior aides, including chief strategist Steve Bannon, encouraged the president to target members of the group, according to The New York Times.
“There has been a stricter imposition by aides to make sure there is a strategic imperative behind his posts” ever since Trump used Twitter to accuse former President Barack Obama of wiretapping several weeks ago, the Times reported, citing conversations with “two people briefed on the process.”
These advisers apparently believe Trump must chasten the Freedom Caucus and re-establish credibility with it ahead of negotiations over the budget and other matters, the Times added.
The Times’ account is consistent with an earlier report that Bannon had advised the president to keep a “shit list” of the Republican lawmakers who had defied him. And when the White House was still trying to win hardliners, Bannon apparently believed he could dictate terms to the Freedom Caucus.
“This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill,” he reportedly said.
What makes Trump’s latest maneuver so interesting, however, is that Ryan ― who Bannon tried to oust while running the ultraconservative Breibart site ― appears to back it.
Asked to respond to Trump’s Twitter barrage aimed at the Freedom Caucus, Ryan simply told reporters, “I understand the president’s frustration.”
“I share frustration,” he added.
That suggests the new strategy is not a showdown between the fiscally moderate nationalists embodied by Bannon and pro-immigration reform fiscal conservatives like Ryan. Rather, it seem to be a tactical alliance against the smaller group of hardline fiscal conservatives that populate the Freedom Caucus.
Whether the ad hoc anti-Freedom Caucus coalition will work is another question, of course. On paper, it looks like an uphill climb ― even with Trump and Ryan working together. The group’s 30-odd members hail from deeply conservative, safe Republican districts and enjoy the backing of financially flush outside groups like Heritage Action.