House Freedom Caucus roiled by Trump’s attacks on Mark Sanford

Greg Nash

President Trump’s public attacks on Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) have roiled members of the House Freedom Caucus, with one lawmaker almost threatening to quit the conservative group over its muted response to the president’s repeated criticisms.

That anger reached a boiling point during a heated meeting on Monday night when Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) pressed fellow members to more forcefully defend Sanford, a fellow Freedom Caucus member and vocal Trump critic who lost his primary in South Carolina earlier this month. Amash was yelling to the point that he was overheard by reporters outside the meeting room.


“He said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of a group that won’t stick up for its own,’ ” one GOP lawmaker who attended the meeting told The Hill. “He sort of threatened departure.”

Amash confirmed to The Hill that he voiced frustrations with Trump’s attacks.

He should stop — I don’t know why he thinks it’s appropriate or a good idea,” the Michigan Republican told The Hill. “What I said was that we need to stand up for ourselves and not allow anyone to bully us.”

The growing tensions have put caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally, in a tough spot as he seeks to defend fellow members without jeopardizing his close relationship with the commander in chief.

“Everybody in there is very supportive of Mark Sanford, and I think that’s one of the things that overwhelmingly they believe that the president is getting bad political advice,” Meadows said Monday evening.

The president, who frequently chats with Meadows on the phone and refers to the conservative ringleader as one of his “warriors,” continued his public attacks Monday evening during a campaign rally for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) in Sanford’s home state.

“The Tallahassee Trail must be a beautiful place,” Trump said, referencing a now-infamous episode in which Sanford claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail but was actually in Argentina visiting his mistress. “Unfortunately for him, he didn’t go there.”

“I can’t stand that guy,” Trump added. “I don’t care.”

Those remarks followed a recent House Republican Conference meeting on immigration in which Trump taunted Sanford — who was not in attendance due to a flight delay — on his primary loss to GOP candidate Katie Arrington, sarcastically telling the room, “I want to congratulate Mark on a great race” and calling him a “nasty guy,” a comment that was met with groans and boos according to sources in the room.

Trump later asserted that his jab was well received by lawmakers, a much-disputed claim, tweeting: “Had a great meeting with the House GOP last night at the Capitol. They applauded and laughed loudly when I mentioned my experience with Mark Sanford. I have never been a fan of his!”

Sanford’s primary defeat came after a tweet from the president hours before the polls closed, encouraging voters to support Arrington.

Many members of the rabble-rousing Freedom Caucus, which has earned a reputation on Capitol Hill for standing up to their party’s leadership, have put out statements supporting Sanford, but most have stopped short of criticizing the president for his remarks.

While some caucus members acknowledged that Trump has put Meadows in an uncomfortable position, they defended how their chairman has navigated the terrain.

“Mark is not the type to let an uncomfortable situation prevent him from speaking what he believes is truth,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) told The Hill on Tuesday. “From my understanding, it’s been communicated to the president.”

Some lawmakers worry that Trump’s repeated attacks are having a chilling effect on lawmakers’ criticism of the president and raising questions about whether Trump is violating the separation of powers and the Constitution.

“It’s more than about me as an individual. It’s about a much bigger theme, which is, as a body, will we cower in the wake of a presidential attack?” Sanford told The Hill. “We’re Article One, the executive branch is Article Two. It’s a constitutional issue.”

“This is the president’s fourth bite at the apple,” said one Freedom Caucus member. “You have the president repeating this. Is he trying to send a chilling message to other members to keep their head down, to stay quiet? Is he trying to, in essence, weaken” the legislative branch and “our natural prerogatives to speak our minds?”

The Freedom Caucus put out a statement on Monday prior to Trump’s most recent jabs, saying the group continues to support Sanford, though it made no mention of Trump.

“Mark Sanford has been a strong, independent voice fighting for the people of South Carolina’s First District. We continue to support him, he is a valued member of the House Freedom Caucus, and it’s our honor serving with him,” the statement reads. “His thoughtful consideration of legislation and willingness to put constitutional principles ahead of the party line is commendable and will be missed.”

But after continued attacks on his colleague Monday night, Amash said during the Freedom Caucus’s weekly closed-door meeting that the group needs to take a stronger stance against Trump’s rhetoric on the matter.

Amash also accused the caucus of a double standard, according to one member who was in attendance. He said that if Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had bashed Sanford, the group would have tried to oust Ryan with a motion to vacate — a sentiment other members concurred with.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in Idaho, also came to Sanford’s defense during the meeting.

“Labrador was in the field for Trump and Trump had not reciprocated that loyalty back. It was a one-way street,” said the Freedom Caucus member who was present. “His point was, if we don’t speak up, these guys will come for every one of us.”

Other Freedom Caucus members said they share those frustrations.

“There are a number of us that don’t like that,” Hice said. “Not only because he’s a member of the Freedom Caucus, but he’s a member of the Republican Party. It doesn’t seem to be wise to be trashing your own members.”

“We’ve got to stick together,” he added. “There’s already too much disunity in the country.”

Meadows emerged from Monday night’s meeting suggesting that the group would likely put out a second statement in a show of strong support for the South Carolina Republican.

The next day, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) went on Hill.TV and gave a full-throated defense of Sanford.

“Mark Sanford is a friend. Mark Sanford is a good member of Congress. Mark Sanford is a member of the Freedom Caucus,” Jordan, a founding member of the conservative caucus, told Hill.TV’s “Rising” in an interview.

“Wish he would have won, wish he was still going to be in Congress,” Jordan added.

Scott Wong contributed.

Tags Donald Trump Jim Jordan Jody Hice Justin Amash Mark Meadows Mark Sanford Paul Ryan
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