Republican leaders have been complaining for years about the Freedom Caucus, the group of hard-right House members who live to annoy the party brass. But they’ve never taken a shot so public, vocal, and direct as what Donald Trump tweeted today — basically calling Freedom Caucus members electoral enemies on a par with the Democratic Party.
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Thursday evening, Trump renewed his (so far one-sided) Twitter fight against Freedom Caucus leaders, suggesting they would hold up his desired tax overhaul too:
If @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Where are @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador?#RepealANDReplace #Obamacare— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Coming from any other president in living memory, this would be a clear warning that the president is prepared to back primary challenges against House members who issue conservative dissents from his agenda. Trump, however, has a tendency to say things without necessarily meaning them.
As we saw during the AHCApocalypse last week, he enjoys bluffing as a political strategy — as when he threatened to force the House to hold a doomed vote on the American Health Care Act so that everyone in the caucus would have to go on record as a friend or a foe, only to demur at the last minute when Paul Ryan pointed out to him that this would create huge political problems for his members.
So Trump is probably just bluffing here, too. At least that’s how I would interpret it. (Also, the historical track record of presidents trying to back primary challenges to incumbent members of Congress is dismal.)
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokesperson, declined to clarify, telling NBC News that “the tweet speaks for itself.”
It’s worth noting that while the Freedom Caucus certainly has been known to scuttle the GOP’s best-laid plans in the past, it’s far from clear that this is really what happened with the Obamacare repeal effort. Many moderate or vulnerable House Republicans had serious doubts about the bill, and the legislation, as written, wasn’t going to make it through the Senate.
It’s possible that if every single Freedom Caucus member had been prepared to vote for the AHCA it would have passed the House, but that’s far from certain. And even if it had passed the House, the basic reality that the bill was too extreme and poorly designed to pass the Senate would have forced major modifications. All of which suggests Trump might be better served blaming the bill’s architects — including himself.