In the Obama years, members of the all-Republican House Freedom Caucus were the ultimate obstructors.1 Their opposition to traditionally routine bills paralyzed Washington. Rep. John Boehner of Ohio stepped down as speaker of the House in 2015 in large part because the leaders of the Freedom Caucus were attempting to remove him.
Early last year, it looked as though the Freedom Caucus would continue in a similar role under President Trump. The caucus temporarily blocked a bill to partially repeal Obamacare, which led Trump to attack some caucus members on Twitter and threaten to support challengers to them in GOP primaries.
What a difference a year makes.
The Freedom Caucus (along with conservative activist groups, some Fox News anchors and other forces on the political right) has succeeded in getting Trump to largely govern from the right. At its urging, the president has abandoned some of the more liberal ideas from his 2016 campaign (such as a major increase in federal infrastructure spending) and his instinct to try to cut deals (he has flirted with compromises with Democrats on immigration policy but never followed through).
Perhaps because Trump has supported their policy goals, Freedom Caucus members have turned into essentially a powerful defense team for the president, aggressively attacking the methods and motives of Justice Department and FBI officials who are looking into connections between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian officials. Last week, 15 House Republicans, 13 from the Freedom Caucus, started a long-shot campaign to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who’s overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump-Russia ties. The caucus members argue that Rosenstein has improperly blocked Congress from seeing documents related to the Russia investigation, but this appears to be a move aimed at either undermining or forcing out the deputy attorney general, who has become a hero to Trump critics because of his strong support of Mueller’s investigation.
The alliance is not entirely surprising. Like Trump, Freedom Caucus members went to Washington skeptical of the place and ready to upend it. The caucus’s successful push against Boehner was in some ways a preview of how Trump would dispatch conventional Republicans like Jeb Bush during the presidential primaries a year later.
“Grassroots conservative Republicans, who are the Freedom Caucus base, are deeply motivated by immigration, both their fears of immigrants and of the demographic and social changes occurring in the country,” said Vanessa Williamson, who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-wrote a 2012 book on the tea party.
“This is a fear that Donald Trump very directly appealed to in 2016,” she added. “Freedom Caucus members are extremely anti-immigration as well.”
But immigration aside, there were clear differences between some of the more liberal ideas that Trump talked about in his 2016 campaign and the very conservative ideology of the Freedom Caucus. Once in office, Trump backed a proposal to get rid of parts of Obamacare that was crafted by House Speaker Paul Ryan but was opposed by Freedom Caucus members, who felt it left too much of the law in place. Eventually, White House officials and Ryan conceded to the Freedom Caucus’s demands for a more conservative bill, and caucus members voted for it, allowing the legislation to pass the House.
“It was probably one of the most difficult times that I’ve ever faced,” Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the current chair of the caucus, said in an interview with FiveThirtyEight this month. “When you go against the president of your own party and you do that within months of him being sworn in, it’s not fun.”
“Had we not found a path to yes [on health care] a few months later, it would have been much more difficult to re-establish the relationship,” he added.
Both sides appear to have learned some lessons.
Three months after the health care bill was passed, Trump and his team started moving a tax bill through Congress. This time, they got early buy-in from the Freedom Caucus. And more broadly, since the health care debate, the president has rarely pushed an initiative that is likely to draw strong resistance from Freedom Caucus members. Trump hinted that he would support some gun control measures in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, for example, but backed off as Freedom Caucus members and (other conservatives) expressed opposition to the idea.
Meadows acknowledged that he and other caucus members realized that bucking the president irritated conservative voters back home. So they are not inclined to get into another fight with Trump. “I had a number of people saying, ‘You need to support the president,’ and many of those were people who voted for me and supported me,” Meadows said. “It was not a fun time in the district.”
The relationship isn’t perfect — some Freedom Caucus members were annoyed that the president endorsed the primary opponent of caucus member Mark Sanford of South Carolina and mocked the congressman in a closed-door meeting after his defeat. But since the dust-up over the health care legislation, there has been little public fighting between Trump and the Freedom Caucus, which regularly scolds Ryan.
And perhaps more importantly for the president, the Freedom Caucus has gone all-in with Trump on his opposition to the Russia investigation.
The Freedom Caucus isn’t alone here. House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican who is not in the Freedom Caucus, has strongly defended Trump and criticized Justice Department and FBI officials conducting the Russia investigation. Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who is also not in the Freedom Caucus, and GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa have called for a special counsel to investigate how the Russia probe has been conducted. (This request has been denied.)
But there is a bloc of Freedom Caucus members working on these issues — and they are arguably attacking the Justice Department and the FBI more aggressively than other House Republicans are.
At the beginning of this year, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio — who was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus — and Meadows wrote an op-ed in which they argued that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was not leading the Justice Department effectively and suggested that he should be replaced. The president has long been frustrated that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, and Sessions’s resignation (or firing) would free Trump up to appoint an attorney general who might limit the probe. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, another Freedom Caucus member, has called for cutting off funding for Mueller’s team.
The principal target of the Freedom Caucus has been not Mueller or Sessions, however, but Rosenstein. In a recent hearing, Jordan criticized Rosenstein so sharply that the deputy attorney general said Jordan’s decision to “attack me personally is deeply wrong.”
A few weeks ago, the House, on a party-line vote (no Democrat supported it, no Republican opposed it), passed a non-binding resolution demanding that the Justice Department hand over to congressional committees documents about how the Russia investigation got started. The resolution, sponsored by 22 members of the House — almost all of whom are from the Freedom Caucus — accuses Rosenstein of not cooperating with Congress.
“The people in our districts are asking who is going to be held accountable for this,” said Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, one of the Freedom Caucus members who sponsored the resolution, in an interview with FiveThirtyEight. He was referring to what he views as improper tactics being used by Justice Department and FBI officials in the Russia investigation.
Rosenstein has argued that the Justice Department is complying with lawmakers’ requests for information and documents about the probe.
Jordan and Meadows are now trying to build support for Rosenstein’s impeachment, an idea that appears to be going nowhere for now (Ryan opposes it). Even if the House were to vote to impeach Rosenstein, his removal seems extremely unlikely, as it would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But I would argue that this impeachment push is less about removing Rosenstein than about creating another anti-Russia-investigation narrative that will be replayed on Fox News, touted on conservative talk radio and hinted at in the president’s tweets. It expands the “Overton window” for GOP tactics to undermine the Russia investigation (if one group of very conservative Republicans is saying Rosenstein should be removed from office, calling for the Mueller investigation to close by the end of the year seems like a modest demand in comparison).
If you think about the strategy of Trump and his allies as trying not to end the Russia investigation but to attack it so much that its findings are viewed skeptically by most Republicans, casting Rosenstein as so unfair to Trump that he should be impeached fits in well.
Trump seems aware of this support — and thankful. He has endorsed DeSantis in Florida’s gubernatorial race even though much of the state’s party establishment is behind Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Trump has defended Jordan, a one-time wrestling coach at Ohio State University who has been accused by several former wrestlers of knowing that the team’s doctor was sexually abusing wrestlers and doing nothing about it. Jordan has denied that he knew about the abuse, and Trump recently said, “I believe him 100 percent.”
“The Republicans — look, we have some absolute warriors … Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows and Matt Gaetz and DeSantis,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News in April after he was asked about the performance of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (whom Trump opted not to praise).
Trump is often portrayed as being disengaged from the operations of Congress and not interested in building relationships with key figures on Capitol Hill — and I think that is at times true. But Trump’s alliance with the Freedom Caucus suggests that he cultivates members of Congress when it comes to issues that he cares a lot about (the Russia investigation) but does not bother to engage deeply on things he is not as interested in, like, say, government funding bills. And this might be a smart strategy — to Trump, being liked by a group of House members who are ideologically close to the party’s base and will defend him on the one issue that could torpedo his presidency may be more useful than courting, say, senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who frequently criticize the president.
“The White House should view the Freedom Caucus, if not for them, they would have no allies on the Hill … when it comes to this investigation,” David Bozell, president of the conservative activist group ForAmerica, said in an interview. “They owe the House Freedom Caucus a great thanks.”