When the balky hardliners of the House Freedom Caucus visited the White House earlier this week, this was Steve Bannon's opening line, according to people in the conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building:
"Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill."
Bannon's point was: This is the Republican platform. You're the conservative wing of the Republican Party. But people in the room were put off by the dictatorial mindset.
One of the members replied: "You know, the last time someone ordered me to something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn't listen to him, either."Tim Alberta reports at Politico about Trump's Thursday meeting with the Freedom Caucus
"Forget about the little shit," Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. "Let's focus on the big picture here."
The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill's defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the "little shit" meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.
"We’re talking about one-fifth of our economy," a member told me afterwardOn Tuesday, Trump spoke to the entire GOP Conference
Then Trump made a mistake. After singling out Meadows and asking him to stand up in front of his colleagues, Trump joked that he might "come after" the Freedom Caucus boss if he didn't vote yes, and then added, with a more serious tone: "I think Mark Meadows will get on board
It was a crucial misreading of Meadows, who has been determined to please both the White House and his conservatives colleagues on the Hill. Upon assuming the chairmanship of the Freedom Caucus earlier this year, Meadows was viewed suspiciously by some of his members who worried that the North Carolina congressman is too cozy with Trump and would hesitate to defy him. Meadows campaigned extensively with Trump last fall and struck up a relationship with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who communicates with him almost daily by text. Meadows knew the health care fight would be viewed as a test of his independence from Trump, and the moment the president called him out, he was boxed in.