‘We Must Fight Them’: Trump Goes After Conservatives of Freedom Caucus
“Stockholm Syndrome?” Representative Tom Garrett of Virginia asked on Twitter, suggesting that the president had become captive to the Republican establishment he attacked during the campaign.
“It’s a swamp not a hot tub. We both came here to drain it. #SwampCare polls 17%. Sad!” wrote Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who often sides with the caucus on votes, mocking the president’s drain-the-swamp campaign pledge.
This was the moment when Mr. Trump, riding a wave of populist anger, was supposed to be at his most fearsome — enforcing discipline on his fragmented party. But in the wake of last week’s stunning defeat of legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, which further eroded his already flagging poll numbers, Mr. Trump has made an abrupt shift from courting his party’s most conservative lawmakers to hurling threats at them, a vivid illustration of his difficulties uniting a still-riven Republican Party.
“Intimidation may work with some in the short term, but it never really works in the long run,” said Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who opposed the health overhaul pushed by the White House and written by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
Mr. Trump and his team believe the Twitter attacks will re-establish his tough-guy leverage in coming negotiations. It also has the added virtue of allowing the most expressive of presidents to give voice to his anger.
And they were not done out of impulse. Mr. Trump’s advisers have become more involved in his free-form Twitter feed in the last few weeks, ever since his impetuous, conspiratorial posts about President Barack Obama’s supposedly wiretapping his phones touched off a still-running controversy.
Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, has counseled a tough tone with the rebels, instructing his staff to use Twitter as a rhetorical prod to keep the party in line. Dan Scavino, an aide who controls Mr. Trump’s official White House Twitter account, recently moved into Mr. Bannon’s West Wing office, where he closely monitors social activity by and about the president, according to two officials.
A handful of people have always had access to Mr. Trump’s personal Twitter account, but in the weeks since the president’s accusation against his predecessor, there has been a stricter imposition by aides to make sure there is a strategic imperative behind his posts, according to two people briefed on the process.
The cannon blasts at the House Freedom Caucus followed nearly a week of the president’s stewing about the debacle over his failed health care effort. He did not take the loss especially well. His aides quickly began discussions about reopening negotiations that would at least demonstrate a commitment to what in the past has been one of his party’s most urgent priorities.
The House Freedom Caucus came away from the health care fight feeling emboldened, and Mr. Trump’s senior advisers are now mindful of the need to slow any momentum the group has going into other legislative battles, including the budget fight just four weeks away.
The health care bill that the many House members rejected was extremely unpopular. Only 17 percent of Americans — and 41 percent of Republicans — supported the proposal, according to a Quinnipiac poll released last week.
Presidents — from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Mr. Obama — have said they would campaign against rebels in their own parties, and the threats have mostly been empty. Mr. Trump seems especially ill-equipped to follow through, senior Republicans say. Beyond blustery Twitter messages, he has so far not shown even a willingness to take them on.
In the mostly conservative House districts where Mr. Trump could target lawmakers, voters are likely to be more in sync with their representatives, who felt that the rollback of the law did not go far enough, than their president, who simply wanted a win.
When Mr. Sanford, fresh off helping torpedo his party’s health care bill, showed up at a Berkeley County Republican meeting in South Carolina on Saturday, he was met with applause and praise.
“It’s fairly banal,” said Representative David Schweikert, Republican of Arizona and a member of the caucus, said of Mr. Trump’s attack. “We are used to it. It goes with the job. He is not the first president who has attacked us, just the first from our own party.”
If the back and forth between Mr. Trump and the House hard-liners inflamed tensions between the president and some of his most loyal, if not exactly ideologically aligned, congressional supporters, it bound the president more closely to Mr. Ryan, reinforcing the most unlikely of shotgun political marriages.
“I understand the president’s frustration,” Mr. Ryan told reporters on Thursday when asked about the president’s morning Twitter attack. “I share frustration.”
All week, the White House lurched between battering conservatives and trying to win them over. On Wednesday — about 18 hours before Mr. Trump’s Twitter blast — senior officials invited two dozen leaders from conservative groups for a closed-door session to plot a path ahead.
Participants, who were instructed by the organizers of the event not to divulge details of the meeting, or even the groups attending, described the hourlong session as a welcome but long overdue policy discussion. It included a candid, polite airing of complaints that they have been largely left out of the loop on major administration decision making, according to people who attended.
The meeting, put together by Mr. Trump’s conservative outreach director, Paul Teller, at the request of conservatives, included representatives of the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Limited Government and Judicial Watch, all of whom were critical of some administration policies, including the health bill.
Thomas Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch — a conservative legal advocacy group that successfully sued the Obama administration for the release of Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails — made a pointed pitch for the release of all documents pertaining to Russia’s interference in the election campaign controversy, according to people who attended the session in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building beside the White House.
Mr. Fitton, the participants said, told Mr. Teller that the president needed to be committed to a policy of extreme transparency about contacts between Russian government officials and Trump associates during the 2016 campaign, including Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law.
He also asked Mr. Teller and other administration officials present to more rapidly approve bottled-up Freedom of Information requests about Russia and other topics — likening the foot-dragging on legally mandated disclosure to what he said was the Obama administration’s flouting of immigration laws.
An activist in attendance said that Mr. Teller nodded, took notes and was noncommittal.
Mr. Trump’s targeting of the Freedom Caucus came on a day of an unexpected change in his senior staff. Katie Walsh, a deputy to Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, announced her sudden departure after less than three months on the job to work for a “super PAC” allied with Mr. Trump. The White House offered no explanation for the timing of her departure.
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