Trump takes risk with Freedom Caucus attack

Trump takes risk with Freedom Caucus attack

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE famously bullied contestants on his “Apprentice” reality-TV show. He bullied his presidential opponents, “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary,” during the 2016 campaign.

After the far-right Freedom Caucus blocked his ObamaCare repeal bill, President Trump took to Twitter and threatened to back primary challengers to oust them in 2018.

But Trump’s usual bullying tactics don’t appear to have fazed the roughly three dozen members of the Freedom group.

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For one, these archconservative rebels believe they’re standing on principle — and are unconcerned about losing their seats in Congress. They also represent some of the reddest districts in the country where the anti-establishment, ultraconservative group enjoys enormous popularity, making it hard to primary them from the right.

And the Freedom Caucus is getting air cover from outside conservative groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action as well as influential conservative media personalities, from Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham to Mark Levin.

“Now I don't know who's telling the White House to focus their anger on the Freedom Caucus, but I do think it's misplaced,” Hannity, a close Trump ally, said on his Fox News show this week. “Because the Freedom Caucus … they want to make a deal, and they want the win for the president and the country.”

Negotiations between Trump and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) collapsed last week after the group rejected Trump’s offer to add to the healthcare bill a repeal of so-called “essential health benefits.”

The House Freedom Caucus, or HFC, wanted more ObamaCare provisions scrapped, including a handful of “Title 1” insurance mandates that conservatives blame for driving up premiums. Far short of the votes, Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP rep: Virginia defeat 'a referendum' on Trump administration After Texas shooting, lawmakers question whether military has systemic reporting problem Pence: Praying 'takes nothing away' from trying to figure out causes behind mass shooting MORE (R-Wis.) pulled the bill from the floor.

Nearly a week later, Trump’s frustration with the HFC hit a boiling point. His loyalists must “fight” the Freedom Caucus and Democrats in 2018, Trump said in an epic tweetstorm, singling out a trio of HFC leaders: Meadows, former Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).

While some Freedom members have remained defiant — “It didn’t take long for the swamp to drain @realDonaldTrump,” tweeted Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashHouse Judiciary advances warrantless wiretapping reform bill The Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on tax-reform bill Ryan sets record for closing down debate in House: report MORE (R-Mich.) — other members are offering an olive branch to the man who many supported and campaigned for in 2016.

“I always try to be positive in everything I do,” GOP Rep. Dave Brat, who stumped with Trump last year in Virginia, told The Hill. “So I wish he would tweet us a deal with a package of insurance regulations that lower [premium] prices. We would love to have him structure that win for the American people.”

None, however, said they feared a Trump-backed primary opponent. If they’re successfully ousted in 2018, then so be it.

“If a primary challenger would serve this country better than me, then I’m certainly willing to entertain that,” Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksAdoption tax credit restored after conservative backlash Push to restore adoption credit gains steam Flake's exit gives GOP new hope in Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.) said after a reporter from The Hill read him the president’s tweet. “I think we can get along with the president. I think we’re the best friends the president has in this situation.”

Other HFC members made the point that Trump will need the Freedom Caucus’s support for other conservative priorities he wants to pursue in his first year in office.

“He will need to work with me on several other issues like tax reform,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) told The Hill. “He can’t get upset and alienate people because of a single issue. If so, it will be a long four years.”

A former Freedom Caucus member who is no longer in Congress echoed those remarks, saying Trump has yet to learn an important Washington maxim: Today’s foe may be tomorrow’s friend.

“Success in Washington is about addition, not subtraction, and he’s subtracting people every day,” the former lawmaker said. “If you take things personal on a case by case basis, you are limiting yourself. You are foregoing working with them on all sorts of stuff.

“It’s very shortsighted.”

Still, there are other conservatives who believe these Freedom Caucus members would be extremely vulnerable to a Trump-backed challenge.

Anti-tax and pro-life leaders who huddled with Ryan in the Speaker’s office Thursday were livid that the Freedom group scuttled the health bill. The legislation would have repealed $1 trillion in ObamaCare taxes and made $880 billion in cuts to Medicaid, while defunding Planned Parenthood.

“I didn’t understand how big this was to the pro-life community. They are pissed as hell at the people who are undercutting them. You just torpedoed defunding Planned Parenthood and you don’t think you can be primaried from the right? You are just wrong,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform who attended the private meeting with Ryan.

As last year proved, Freedom Caucus members aren’t invincible. Then-Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), an original member of the group, was ousted by a little-known GOP challenger backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the agriculture lobby. His defeat last summer came after leadership stripped him of his seat on the Agriculture Committee — a crucial post for a state dominated by farming.

If Trump is serious, he could use the Huelskamp defeat as a model for targeting the ex-congressman’s Freedom allies. The president and his campaign advisers could recruit more business-minded Republican challengers, fly Air Force One to those districts, and stump and raise loads of campaign cash for them.

But in the immediate future, the Trump threats won’t flip votes, Huelskamp said.

“Anybody can beat me with $2 million, but does threatening HFC members move them to switch their votes? No,” Huelskamp said Friday in a phone interview. “It actually emboldens them.”

Other HFC allies also mocked the idea of “pro-Trump puppets” running across the country in next year's midterms.

“Considering all the enemies that Trump has said he’d get even with or go after, he will have a very busy campaign season the next two years,” said the former Freedom Caucus lawmaker. “Moderates, Democrats, Freedom Caucus, Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCNN to air sexual harassment Town Hall featuring Gretchen Carlson, Anita Hill Trump wrestles with handling American enemy combatants Flake: Trump's call for DOJ to probe Democrats 'not normal' MORE, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore GOP strategist: 'There needs to be a repudiation' of Roy Moore by Republicans World leaders reach agreement on trade deal without United States: report MORE, Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Flake on Moore defenders: 'This cannot be who we are' GOP senators raise concerns over tax plan MORE. Who’s left?

“After a while, nobody takes these comments that serious because he makes them so often and directs them at so many different entities.”

During a conference call hosted by outside conservative groups Friday, Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham stood firmly behind the Freedom Caucus.

They are “the grown-ups in the room,” Needham said. “They are the ones that care about the policy, and they have a completely reasonable policy demand that the Washington establishment have been ignoring."

Jessie Hellmann contributed.