Days before the presidential election, Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan called a small group of his closest House colleagues to deliver the news: The ringleader of the conservative agitators would soon mount a challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Jordan (R-Ohio) had been mulling a long-shot bid for weeks, and during a meeting in Washington the week before the election, some members of the group urged him to go for it. Jordan set up a whip operation to start courting support the day after the election, and his cohorts kept the plan a secret — even from some of their own members.
Then Donald Trump won. And the Freedom Caucus plot, like every other assumption about post-election Washington, was blown to pieces.
For the sake of GOP unity, Jordan fell in line behind Ryan, who was nominated Tuesday for a second term in a secret-ballot internal election. Not a single lawmaker went on record to oppose him. One of the founders of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C), even nominated Ryan for the post.
In perhaps the most unforeseen twist of the past week, the man who laid the path for Ryan’s easy reelection was Trump himself. The president-elect’s victory, followed by his apparent willingness to accept Ryan despite their frequent clashes during the campaign, might well have saved the Wisconsin Republican’s job.
Before Trump prevailed, many of his allies wanted him to lead a drive after the election to push Ryan out. Given the unease with the speaker among some Trump supporters and conservatives in Congress, it’s plausible they would have succeeded.
But Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence — a longtime Ryan ally — quickly signaled they weren’t interested in an internal GOP battle on the heels of their triumph. And some of Trump’s top allies who also support Ryan, including Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), helped smooth over any lingering tensions, arguing to lawmakers that Ryan was the best person to implement Trump’s agenda.
And with that, the fractured GOP Conference finally found a way to unite.
“If Trump had not won, then the base would have demanded a scalp, and it probably would have been Paul’s — and they may have been right to do that,” Mulvaney said in an interview Tuesday. “But Trump winning changes the entire dynamic. What it allows us to do is focus on what we can accomplish.”
Jordan’s secret plot for the speakership grew in part out of unease with Ryan’s decision to distance himself from Trump following revelations that Trump had bragged about making unwanted sexual advances on women. A controversial figure in the conference for his no-holds-barred tactics, Jordan could never garner the support to win the speakership.
But this was about leverage, not winning. Freedom Caucus members had been hoping for months to extract concessions from Ryan as he sought another term leading the GOP Conference. But their low odds of booting him suddenly increased when Ryan declared after the “Access Hollywood” video he was done defending Trump.
Lots of Republican lawmakers were angry with Ryan, including some moderate members who backed Trump. Even Ryan’s closest allies fretted that he’d be scapegoated if Trump lost. So the Freedom Caucus prepared to offer an alternative for any Trump supporters who had had it with Ryan.
“Jim Jordan was willing to be a sacrificial lamb in the case that Trump narrowly lost the election, because a lot of members needed a place to go to park their vote — other than Ryan,” said one lawmaker who learned of Jordan’s plan.
Some Ryan supporters argue that he was popular enough within the conference to keep his gavel. Ryan has raised millions of dollars for his colleagues’ reelection bids and has made a conscious effort to hear out conservatives who feel marginalized.
There’s no way of knowing, of course, because Trump won. And without any indication to date that Trump would seek revenge against Republicans who weren’t full-throated supporters, Jordan fell in line with the rest of his colleagues and backed Ryan.
Jordan did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Rep. Peter King, who was with Trump at his campaign headquarters in New York on election night, said Trump pulled him aside as he was leaving and said, “I want to work with you.” The New York Republican took “you” to mean “Congress” — and he immediately sensed Ryan would be OK.
“If Donald Trump had lost, in the post-election we would have heard all the reasons in the world why Paul Ryan was at fault,” King said. “You would have had all the finger-pointing going on. … It’s the perfect storm for us right now. It could have been the most imperfect storm.”
While Trump never endorsed Ryan publicly, he and the speaker were all pleasantries and compliments when the future commander in chief visited Capitol Hill last week. Trump also named one of Ryan’s best friends, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, to be his chief of staff — further solidifying the impression that Trump supported Ryan.
Ryan, for his part, wrapped himself in a Trump cloak. He called the real estate magnate’s victory “the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime” and vowed to do his part to make him a great president.
During a closed-door meeting hours before his reelection as speaker, lawmakers said Ryan repeatedly emphasized how he now talks with Trump on a daily basis and how his staff is in constant touch with the president-elect’s. Ryan also told the GOP Conference on Tuesday that Pence called to say he and Trump support the current leadership regime.
Tuesday’s show of unity doesn’t mean Ryan is in the clear, however. He still needs to clinch 218 votes during a January floor vote, and he can’t afford to lose more than a few dozen Republicans. As Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) noted after Tuesday’s vote, that’s where the real drama often happens, though he “hope[s]” it’s over.
Some of Ryan’s antagonists off of Capitol Hill are watching the speaker’s every move, and frustration in some pockets of the Republican Conference is still simmering.
At Tuesday’s closed-door conference meeting, a pair of Trump supporters, Reps. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), joined with Freedom Caucus members to press Ryan on why he wouldn’t grant their request to delay leadership elections. (GOP leaders say the House schedule is jam-packed, so pushing back the election was not feasible.)
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