McClatchy Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Republican strife turned into open warfare Thursday as President Donald Trump tore into members of the House Freedom Caucus, while conservatives pledged to stand their ground.

"The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast," Trump tweeted Thursday morning. "We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!"

It was Trump's most direct threat to date to the conservative coalition that stymied his health care bill last week with the help of moderate Republicans who were also opposed. Trump also tweeted at the Freedom Caucus earlier this week, accusing it and its supporters of helping Democrats protect the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood.

Conservatives who support the Freedom Caucus responded to Trump's proclamation Thursday with a mixture of disappointment, dismissal — and defiance.

"There is a better way to negotiate a positive outcome than for the president to use the approach of lumping the Freedom Caucus in with Democrats, setting them up as the enemy of the people," said JoAnn Fleming, the Texas-based executive director of Grassroots America, who has deep contacts throughout the Texas grass-roots conservative movement.

"It's deeply disappointing and disturbing," she added.

Leaders of several other conservative groups who support the Freedom Caucus downplayed Trump's remark while reiterating that they stand by those who helped defeat last week's health care bill before it even got to a vote, on the grounds that it didn't go far enough in repealing Obamacare.

"Trump knows, when your approval rating is 35 percent and 30 percent of those are conservatives, they're your friends, and they're the ones who are supporting the Freedom Caucus and will continue to support the Freedom Caucus," said David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth, a conservative group that opposed the last health care plan, which was shepherded by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

McIntosh, whose group was among those criticized by Trump this week, said he'd read the president's tweet as a message to return to negotiations on the health care bill, but he added of the Freedom Caucus, "We've helped them get elected; we'll help them get re-elected. Especially in a primary."

Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners, two conservative groups backed by the deep-pocketed Koch brothers, last week promised to spend millions aiding lawmakers who opposed the health care bill on the table. Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, reiterated their support for those lawmakers in an interview Thursday.

"We remain committed to working with the president and the leadership and the Republican Congress to move forward in a principled way," Phillips said. "At the same time we're absolutely going to keep our commitments to have the backs of those who do the right things, like insisting on full repeal of Obamacare."

Following Trump's tweet, several Republican members of Congress also served up pointed pushback, with Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky mocking, "It's a swamp not a hot tub. We both came here to drain it. #SwampCare polls 17 percent. Sad!"

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan was more biting: "It didn't take long for the swamp to drain @realDonaldTrump. No shame, Mr. President. Almost everyone succumbs to the D.C. establishment."

And Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho admonished: "Freedom Caucus stood with u when others ran. Remember who your real friends are. We're trying to help u succeed."

Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, generally kept a low profile Thursday, but he told the Washington Examiner's editorial board that Trump is "not being well-served" by some of his advisers.

Meadows' spokesman, Ben Williamson, added in an email, "We fully support the president and are determined to help him succeed in accomplishing his goal of keeping our promises to the voters."

There are potentially big political risks for the Freedom Caucus: Trump has a loyal base of followers and a proven ability to undercut conservative rivals, as he did in the Republican primary last year. The question, though, is whether he will stay angry enough with these conservatives to keep the pressure on them for the next year and a half, ahead of the midterm elections. Operatives on both sides of the GOP ideological divide have their doubts.

For the moment, though, there are plenty of moderates who may not be in lockstep with Trump but don't mind seeing the Freedom Caucus pilloried, either. Trump's tweet placed the blame squarely with the conservatives, giving moderates who had also helped block the legislation a pass.

"Clearly the Republicans, if they hope to hold on to the House majority, have got to deliver on the promises they made to the American people," said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. "Republicans who stand in the way of fulfilling those promises ought to be concerned about their political future."

Asked whether Trump's tweet furthers the perception that it was the Freedom Caucus that stood in the way, Ayres replied, "That simply added more fuel to the fire."

But the Freedom Caucus is a group that prides itself on maintaining ideological purity. Insisting that they "get on the team" — or else — may be counterproductive, suggested Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a member of the Freedom Caucus who opposed the health care bill.

"The carrots work a lot better than sticks in the world of politics," Sanford said. "And the idea of threatening your way to legislative success may not over the long run prove to be the wisest of strategies."

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(Donovan Harrell contributed to this report.)