By Jordan Fabian and Jonathan Easley - 03-30-17 19:06 PM EDT
President Trump on Thursday launched an extraordinary attack against conservative Republicans who thwarted the party's healthcare plan, escalating an intra-party feud that could threaten the rest of his legislative agenda.
In a string of tweets, Trump threatened to back primary challenges against members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus if they continue to oppose party leaders. He also named and shamed the group's chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), and two other prominent group members for what he said is their efforts to derail ObamaCare repeal and tax reform.
"If @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform," the president tweeted.
"Where are @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador? #RepealANDReplace #Obamacare."
- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
House conservatives fought back, furious at the president for picking the fight at a time when congressional Republicans are trying to move past last week's bitter legislative defeat.
"Most people don't take well to being bullied," Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a Freedom Caucus member, told reporters. "It's constructive in fifth grade. It may allow a child to get his way, but that's not how our government works."
Freedom Caucus members argued Thursday that they did Trump a favor by sinking the American Health Care Act, which was reviled by grassroots conservatives and failed to attract support from even some moderate members of the GOP conference.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who was named by Trump, shot back over Twitter.
@realDonaldTrumpFreedom Caucus stood with u when others ran. Remember who your real friends are. We're trying to help u succeed.- Ra l R. Labrador (@Raul_Labrador) March 30, 2017
"The bill's polling at 17 percent," added Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), another Freedom Caucus member. "The American people are not in support of this bill. And we represent them, so we can do better."
Trump's deteriorating relationships with conservatives in the House could make it harder for him to pass his top agenda items, including an overhaul of the tax code, an infrastructure package and money to build his proposed wall at the southern border.
It could also complicate GOP leaders' efforts to approve a must-pass spending bill to keep the government open beyond the April 29 funding deadline.
But Trump was angered with the failure of the healthcare bill, the first major legislative initiative of his presidency.
And he decided to act on his initial instinct to cross some of his staunchest allies on the right, against the wishes of establishment figures like Speaker Ryan (R-Wis.) and activists in the conservative movement.
Tea Party leader Mark Meckler told The Hill he was "disgusted" by Trump's attacks against the House Freedom Caucus.
"The man who promised to 'Drain the Swamp' now appears to be the 'Creature from the Black Lagoon,' " said Meckler, who co-founded the Tea Party Patriots and whose new group, Citizens for Self Governance, has a database of 2 million conservative activists.
"He is now on the side of the swamp monsters," Meckler added.
Meckler and others on the right have warned that Trump risked losing his grassroots base by backing the healthcare bill.
Many conservatives have so far directed their anger at Ryan and GOP leadership, who they say misled the president on the legislation.
But Trump's attack on the Freedom Caucus could open up a rift with grassroots conservatives.
Even some of the president's most loyal supporters, like conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, said Trump's broadsides against the Freedom Caucus could prove counterproductive.
Attacking the Freedom Caucus won't win @POTUS any plaudits from Dems; could alienate those R's who stood by him when so many others ran.- Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) March 30, 2017
Thursday's intra-party drama came as the White House struggled to respond to a new report in The New York Times claiming that two White House officials played a role in passing classified information to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
Press secretary Sean Spicer was besieged with questions about whether the White House was the source of information Nunes obtained about incidental surveillance of the Trump transition team.
The Times report appeared to contradict repeated assertions from Nunes that the White House was not the source of his information, giving Democrats new leverage to argue that the House investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has been compromised.
Stories about Nunes rolled endlessly on cable news on Thursday, even as the GOP's public battle over who is to blame for the healthcare failure forced members to take sides.
Speaker Ryan said at a news conference that he understood why the president was frustrated, but broke with Trump in a separate interview by stating that he did not want to work with Democrats on healthcare.
And Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally and member of the centrist Tuesday Group, affirmed at a meeting Wednesday that it will not meet with the Freedom Caucus to negotiate changes to an ObamaCare replacement bill.
"It was just reiterated that next time one of those calls comes in [from the Freedom Caucus], just hang up," Collins said.
In another sign of possible fallout from last week, Ryan on Thursday morning hosted more than a dozen conservative free-market and anti-abortion leaders in his office, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union and Douglas Holtz-Eakin of American Action Forum.
Noticeably absent from the meeting were any representatives from four outside conservative groups that opposed the healthcare bill: FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity.
Scott Wong and Cristina Marcos contributed