They are some of the most conservative members on Capitol Hill, a group of lawmakers whose opposition to and tenuous relationship with former House Speaker John Boehner is often cited as the reason Boehner finally turned in his speaker’s gavel.
From one perspective, the Freedom Caucus – with its rabble-rousing, no-compromising brand of conservatism–could be seen as opening the door for Donald Trump’s rise. The few dozen Freedom Caucus members in the House wrote the book on opposing the establishment, on everything from the debt ceiling to funding bills. One of their members, Dave Brat (R-VA) stunned the political world in 2014 when he took out a sitting Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary. This month, the Freedom Caucus voted against supporting their own party’s budget plan, putting House Speaker Paul Ryan, a former budget committee chairman, in a bind.
The Freedom Caucus’ own rhetoric, including its promises to repeal Obamacare (even though Obama is in office), has fueled some of the anger and resentment against Washington that Trump has benefited from. But while the Freedom Caucus and Trump both love raging against the so-called Washington establishment, there are a lot of Freedom Caucus members who wish they could put Trump back in the bottle.
Members of the Freedom Caucus share concerns that Trump’s past positions on key issues like abortion and the Second Amendment cast doubt on Trump’s conservative bonafides. Many members in the caucus have thrown their support to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) whose hardline tactics they have often adopted.
But, it is not just Trump’s positions alarming members of the Freedom Caucus. It is Trump’s cult of personality and tendency to follow his own rules that have them unsure of how to stop him now.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ)
“A lot of us are really nervous. We feel Obama’s a tyrant. A lot of people are worried about trading their tyrant for our tyrant,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) told TPM in an interview in the Capitol last week. “He might play it like Obama with a pen and a phone, and go it alone and even if it is policies that we like, if he does them in an unconstitutional way, we are bound to fight him and that could be a real problem.”
Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), admits she has no idea what Trump actually believes. She calls his past “sketchy” and cites his donations to Democrats as a red flag even if his claims are true that he gave money to advance his own business interests. Yet, Lummis said her biggest problem with Trump is his attitude.
“Would I like him to act more presidential right now in terms of the way he talks about issues? Absolutely,” Lummis told TPM.
Trump has said, “I can be more presidential than anybody, if I want to be.”
“My request to Donald Trump is want to. Want to really bad,” Lummis said.
Still, members of the Freedom Caucus, like the Republican Party at large, are puzzled by how to handle Trump. On the one hand, they fear he threatens the conservative movement with his squishiness. On the other hand, many of their own supporters are backing him.
Last week, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), was among a group of prominent conservatives huddling in Washington to build a strategy to stop Trump, according to the Washington Post. In a statement to TPM, Franks, a prominent anti-abortion congressman and member of the Freedom Caucus, would not address his participation in the meeting, but even he alluded to a grim reality that Trump may be the best conservatives have on the ballot this year.
Like many in the Freedom Caucus, Franks is walking a tight rope between wanting a candidate with a record of conservatism and not wanting to alienate his own supporters, many of whom may be sympathetic to Trump.
“I have been asked on many occasions what I would do if this race comes down to a one on one contest between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. Each time, I have responded that as a Conservative, I cannot trust Mr. Trump to do the right thing,” Franks said in his statement to TPM. “However I can definitely trust Mrs. Clinton to consistently do exactly the wrong thing. Consequently, in that circumstance, I would vote for Donald Trump.”
Ted Yoho (R-FL) called Trump “weak” on policy, but he too cannot help but be astonished by the billionaire’s rise.
“He has changed the face of politics in America,” Yoho said in an interview with TPM. “I got to give Trump credit for doing what he’s done.”
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)
Even as Trump has been seen as a potential drag to down-ballot races in swing states and districts, for Freedom Caucus members who hail from conservative districts, Trump is harnessing their voters. It makes opposing Trump, a delicate line for many members to walk even as they harbor fears about Trump’s conservative record, his willingness to use executive authority or use incendiary language that isolates constituencies that will be essential for the GOP in a general election.
“It is clear that Republicans need to reach out to women, need to reach out to Hispanic voters and need to reach out to other people in this country,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) in an interview with TPM. “Our argument has always been that we want to create an opportunity society. We want to create economic opportunity for people ,and Trump has been more vicious in his language than any of the other Republican candidates when it comes to demeaning people.”
Yet, most Freedom Caucus members interviewed for the story were keenly aware that actively opposing Trump as the nominee would be to dismiss the voices of the same people that they have claimed to have been fighting for in Congress for the last few years.
“Let’s say Trump is the Republican nominee, I will vote for him. It is because when you listen to people in the country, they are offended that members of Congress and party leaders feel that they know better who Republicans around the country should be supporting,” Lummis said. “My experience has been to trust people. Trust the voters. They get it wrong once in awhile, but rarely.”
Lummis, however, said she has a lot more she wants to know about Trump.
“I don’t really have a grasp yet on his core values and since he is leading our delegate count, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that maybe I just have more to learn about A.) whether he has core values and B.) what they are, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Does that mean I am comfortable with him? Not quite yet,” Lummis said.
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