Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, the first and only Republican to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment, said he was leaving the Freedom Caucus on Monday, a development that underscores Trump’s unrivaled influence on the Republican Party.
Amash, a conservative libertarian, co-founded the Freedom Caucus to fight against a certain Republican Party groupthink and to promote small-government and constitutionally conservative ideals. But on Monday, he told CNN he no longer wanted to be a “distraction.”
An exclusive group of roughly 40 of the House’s most conservative members, the Freedom Caucus was founded on a mission of rebellion; for years they’ve been unafraid of escalating tensions and divisions within their party to push forward a conservative agenda. They haven’t seen many concrete legislative wins, but the group has been effective at moving the debate far to the right — oftentimes so far that passing legislation becomes impossible.
But since Trump, they’ve assumed a new role: defending the president at all costs. Amash hasn’t been attending Freedom Caucus meetings for some time, but he remained on the caucus’s board. Amash’s official exit is a demarcation line; yet another data point in Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.
Amash has stood on an island in his own party for some time. That island is shrinking. He made headlines in recent weeks after tweeting that Trump’s conduct is impeachable, that Attorney General William Barr knowingly misled the public about the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and that his Republican colleagues in Congress are willfully ignoring it all. He came to that conclusion after reading the entirety of the redacted special counsel report.
In May, the Freedom Caucus unanimously voted to condemn Amash, a founding member, for speaking out against Trump, escalating the treatment that Trump critics — like former Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Sanford or even Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake — have received in the past.
To outside observers, it’s been a slow unraveling of a group that was once based on strict principles, Corie Whalen, Amash’s former congressional staffer, told me in May.
“Trump was unexpectedly elected, so they wanted to work with him when they could, but it went from working with him to being sycophants,” Whalen said then. “And for what? I’m not sure they can tell us.”
Amash says Trump has blinkered the Republican Party. Look no further than the Freedom Caucus.
Amash’s comments indicting the president have also thrust the Republican Party’s strategy of inaction into the spotlight.
“We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees — on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice — depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump,” Amash tweeted.
This is perhaps most poignant with the Freedom Caucus. Led by Reps. Mark Meadows (NC) and Jim Jordan (OH), who have a direct line to the president, the Freedom Caucus has always liked to tout itself as a big-tent group with raucous policy debate. Amash, a libertarian, played a big role in that, often breaking from Trump on major issues from immigration to government spending.
But now the group has become some of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in Congress.
It’s helped raise the caucus’s influence. When Republicans controlled the House, the Freedom Caucus, having cultivated Trump’s ear, forced congressional Republican leaders to listen to their demands. They used that power to move the debate on issues like health care and immigration further and further right, often tanking negotiations altogether. But the group has had to accept that Trump wasn’t always aligned with their mission: He’s supported deficit-busting budgets and abandoned cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare.
“It’s all got a little bit fuzzy in the Trump era,” Sanford told Vox of the Freedom Caucus’s mission in May, pointing out “more than a little irony” in Mick Mulvaney — now acting White House chief of staff and another Freedom Caucus founding member, who’s known for being one of Congress’s most notorious deficit hawks — supporting an administration that’s ballooned the debt.
Their biggest focus has been on securing political wins for Trump, using the House inquiry into Russia’s election meddling to sow distrust in the FBI, and defending the president through every twist and turn of Mueller’s investigation.
Meadows has said the group was based on two rules: Members had to be willing to vote with Republican leadership, and against it.
Now questioning Trump is seen as a distraction.
“It just seems like these guys want to follow the leader,” Whalen said. “It’s actually sad.”