How Trump Broke the Freedom Caucus

Its members were once champions of ideological purity. But as their treatment of Justin Amash suggests, they’re now whatever the president wants them to be.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Back in February 2018, I sat down with two leaders of the House Freedom Caucus to discuss, among other things, whether fiscal conservatism had gone extinct.

A few days earlier, with encouragement from his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump had signed a budget deal boosting federal spending by nearly $300 billion. I told the leaders, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, that it seemed precisely the kind of deal that Mulvaney, a self-professed fiscal hawk and a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, would have railed against during his time in Congress.

Meadows shrugged. “He wouldn’t have been supportive of it,” the North Carolina congressman told me. But “he’s got a different boss now.”

It’s been just over a year since then, and Mulvaney still serves in a different branch of government from his Freedom Caucus compatriots. But it’s tough to conclude that they still work for different bosses.

That much seemed clear on Monday evening, when Jordan left a Freedom Caucus meeting eager to share his grievances about a fellow member. Justin Amash, a Michigan congressman who helped establish the group, had shocked Republicans over the weekend by calling for Trump’s impeachment and accusing Attorney General William Barr of misrepresenting the Russia investigation’s findings to the public. Jordan told reporters that night that after taking a show of hands at the meeting, “it was every single person who totally disagrees with what he says.”

Reporters ran with that as confirmation that the group had “formally condemned” Amash for his comments. In the past 24 hours, multiple sources familiar with the group’s dynamics have told me that characterization isn’t quite right—the group’s bylaws don’t lay out any such mechanism for admonishing a member. “There was not actually a vote to condemn him,” Ohio representative Warren Davidson said. “It was more a question of, does anyone agree with Justin?”

But Jordan has shown no interest in correcting the record, feeling that the impression of a formal admonishment is helpful to what many believe is the group’s new raison d'être. As Joe Barton, a former member of the caucus, put it to me: “My guess is that members just felt they needed to defend the president.”

The Freedom Caucus’s hardening role as Trump’s protector would probably surprise those familiar with the group’s origins. Jordan, Meadows, and others founded the caucus in 2015 as a check on Republican leadership, which they felt had usurped power such that rank-and-file members no longer had a voice in legislative proceedings. Moreover, they were tired of watching Republicans acquiesce to massive spending packages, even as most of them continued to campaign on stemming the deficit. They were effective in quickly building out their ranks, and were soon large enough to block any legislation from passing a GOP-led House. As former Speaker John Boehner and his successor, Paul Ryan, quickly learned, to keep the conference running smoothly was to keep the Freedom Caucus happy.

And that was no small task: Agitation was in the group’s DNA, after all. But in those first years, some variation of conservative principle always seemed to underlie their grievances, whether they were frustrated by a cushy omnibus package or an expansion of guest-worker visas. It seemed natural, then, that so many group members were uncomfortable with Trump during the 2016 presidential race, preferring established conservatives such as Senator Ted Cruz and deficit hawks like Rand Paul. “I don’t think he is a conservative,” the former Idaho representative and Freedom Caucus co-founder Raúl Labrador said of Trump during the primary. Less than a week before the election, Mulvaney—who is now also the president’s acting chief of staff—said he thought Trump was a “terrible human being.”

But since then, the group has become the president’s staunchest defender. Now, there appears to be little daylight between the GOP congressional leadership, which the Freedom Caucus was founded to stymie, and the Freedom Caucus itself. The president’s force of personality, and the fear of his disfavor, have ultimately proved strong enough to pull together the most divided of Republicans.

And it’s not just on legislative matters. Perhaps the most salient indication of the Freedom Caucus’s shift came last summer, when Trump repeatedly bashed Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina congressman and caucus member who’d become a vocal critic of the president. Even after he lost his primary—in large part because of Trump’s persistent attacks—the president kept going at him. Leadership stayed mum, declining to defend Sanford or criticize Trump for the remarks. But while that wasn’t necessarily a shock—Sanford had previously been a thorn in their side—what was surprising was that most Freedom Caucus members stayed nearly as quiet.

Save for Justin Amash, that is. In a weekly meeting in June 2018, following another round of Trump’s attacks, Amash berated his colleagues for not defending Sanford more forcefully. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of a group that won’t stick up for its own,’” one GOP lawmaker who attended the meeting told The Hill’s Melanie Zanona and Juliegrace Burfke. “He sort of threatened departure.” Amash confirmed to the outlet that he had told his colleagues to stand up for themselves “and not allow anyone to bully us.”

Amash has found himself in Sanford’s shoes this week, weathering Trump’s taunts and name-calling without any public pushback from his colleagues.

“There is a certain degree of irony in the Freedom Caucus’s condemnation of Justin exercising his First Amendment rights of free speech,” Sanford told me. “The Freedom Caucus has drifted at least from when I was there … This is another data point on that front. More significantly, it’s an indicator of how it’s blue team versus red team now, and there’s little in between.”

Some caucus members and aides contended to me, however, that the Freedom Caucus’s issue with Amash wasn’t so much his opinion as it was the way he expressed it. “Justin didn’t give them any advance warning,” said one senior aide to a caucus member, who, like others I talked with for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share private discussions. “It wasn’t solely the fact that they disagreed; it was not giving them the courtesy of a heads-up that frustrated them.” Amash did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

“We have healthy debates on every kind of issue you could imagine,”Davidson told me, adding that Amash hasn’t been to many group meetings lately. “I think that’s why so many Freedom Caucus people were like, Hey, where are you coming from on this?

Nevertheless, it was hard not to see the parallels to the Sanford episode when, following Trump’s tweet calling Amash a “loser,” and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s claim that Amash was “just looking for attention,” Freedom Caucus members either stayed silent or continued levying their own criticisms.

Ex-members of the caucus, however—those who, in retirement, no longer fret over their relationship with Trump—were much more charitable. “I disagree with Justin’s analysis, but I do understand where he’s coming from,” Barton told me. “There’s no member of the Freedom Caucus more intellectually honest than he is. So my guess is that he agonized over this and felt like he couldn’t, in good conscience, not say something and still be honest to his oath of office.”

Intellectual honesty was supposed to be the Freedom Caucus’s calling card upon its founding. But many of the positions on which the group once prided itself—slashing spending, standing up for those who break with the status quo—have been tested time and again by Trump. In their failure to push back against ad hominem attacks on Amash, or make clear their support for him even in disagreement, Freedom Caucus members seem to have left no doubt about whom they now consider their boss.

“The problem with distancing yourself from ideas and tethering yourself to one particular ship in the sea of politics,” Sanford told me, “is that if that ship goes down—or it reaches its constitutionally instated term limit—then what?”