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.
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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?”