In a move that could signal a major shift in White House strategy—as well as a possible campaign of retribution against members of his own political party—President Donald Trump on Thursday morning tweeted: “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!”
This comes on the heels of other recent tweets that he issued in the wake of his decision to pull the Republican health-care plan.
When the bill went down, it was unclear who would be blamed. Some theorized that House Speaker Paul Ryan would be the fall guy. Others suspected this was the beginning of the end for Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. The Freedom Caucus, others theorized, might take the blame. But in the immediate aftermath, Trump blamed Democrats for the bill’s defeat.
In the waning hours before his health-care plan collapsed, President Trump had attempted to cajole the Freedom Caucus, threatening that he might come after their chairman, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, if he didn’t support the bill.
As part of a last-ditch effort to salvage the bill, Trump had made numerous concessions to the Freedom Caucus, but each time he granted a concession during their negotiation, they seemed to move the goal posts.
Today’s tweet isn’t a complete surprise. The day after pulling the bill, Trump tweeted: “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club for Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!”
And on Monday, he tweeted: “The Republican House Freedom Caucus was able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. After so many bad years they were ready for a win!”
Still, today’s tweet seems more serious. If it is to be taken literally (we never know), it could mean that Trump will have to pursue a dramatically different governing strategy than the one he began with.
In my last column, I suggested the president might “take a page from the Bill Clinton playbook and ‘triangulate.’” This would involve embracing the populist themes he ran on, instead of outsourcing his governing agenda to Paul Ryan and House Republicans.
This latest tweet—indicating he wants to fight both the Freedom Caucus and Democrats in 2018—suggests he might be taking this idea seriously. There is always the possibility that Trump might be retooling his administration—something he must do if it is to be successful.
Another way of looking at it is that this could be a mess. While Breitbart (and maybe Bannon) are gunning for Ryan, Trump is going at the Freedom Caucus. This is not quite circular firing squad territory, but it is chaotic. If a Republican president seriously expends time and treasure taking down members of his own party in a midterm election, that doesn’t bode well for him or his party.
Still, I think we have to accept the possibility that Trump (or, more likely, an outside group operating on his behalf) could identify some loyal Trump supporters to “primary” some of the Freedom Caucus members. Even if it doesn’t work—even if Trump fails to oust anyone—the threat that the president of the United States might come to your district—might run a radio ad for your Republican opponent—could be enough to make you think twice before crossing him again.
This could be part of a larger negotiation. Read the tweet closely, and you’ll see it’s a warning. He says this will happen “If they don’t get on the team.” In other words, they had better cooperate with him on tax reform, avoiding a government shutdown, etc.
Back when Trump was trying to sell his health care plan, he warned Republicans that “many of you will lose your seats” if it didn’t pass. As was the case with many of Trump’s pronouncements, it wasn’t precisely clear what he meant. Now, things are starting to come into better focus. He wasn’t doing political analysis. He was issuing a threat.