President Donald Trump sat before a room full of House Republicans in June and praised the two men much of his audience despised the most: Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan.
The pair of Freedom Caucus leaders had long been personae non gratae within the GOP Conference for deploying tactics that made leadership look feckless or worse. But Trump was either unaware of that or not interested: To him, the pair were his tough-talking unapologetic allies — and he was going to let everyone know it.
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“He’s a warrior for me!” Trump exclaimed of Jordan at the closed-door meeting, gushing over Jordan and Meadows’ performances defending him on TV.
“Trump irritated 80 percent of the conference by effusively complimenting Meadows [and] Jordan,” one lawmaker in the room texted POLITICO that day. The Freedom Caucus leaders, the person said grudgingly, “are emboldened by his praise.”
There’s a reason Donald Trump loves Meadows and Jordan and it all comes down to one word: loyalty. The principals of the group of three-dozen hardliners have also become the ringleaders of an unofficial Trump alliance on Capitol Hill, the front line in Trump’s war against his many foes.
While Justice Department announced indictments of Russians and former Trump campaign officials in the Russia investigation, they were sniffing around for evidence that called into question the FBI’s credibility. When Republicans turned on the president for failing to stand up to Russia President Vladimir Putin, Meadows and Jordan were there reminding reporters of Trump’s accomplishments.
And on Wednesday, both men escalated their feud with the Justice Department, bucking Speaker Paul Ryan and much of their own party by filing a resolution to impeach Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“For nine months we’ve asked for documents… and what we’ve found is that subpoenas have been ignored, information has been hidden and the efforts have been stonewalled,” Meadows said on Fox News Wednesday of their effort to “investigate the investigator.”
Sitting next to Meadows during the same Laura Ingraham interview, Jordan added: “We are tired of the Justice Department giving us the finger and not giving us the information we are entitled to to do our congressional duty!”
The close relationship demonstrates how power is garnered in Trump’s Washington. The president values loyalty above all else, his advisers say — even better if that person can throw a punch.
But in turning to Meadows and Jordan for advice and support, Trump has embraced two of the more obstinate members of the House Republican Conference — lawmakers who’ve regularly blocked what a majority in both parties view as common-sense compromises. His reliance on Meadows and Jordan, for example, reduces the chance of bipartisan deal-making — which hasn’t been a priority of Trump’s so far but could become more necessary, especially if Democrats win the House this fall.
For now, at least, the three have shown no sign of easing up on their mutual dependence, especially when it comes to the Mueller probe. Neither Meadows nor Jordan has suggested that he is pursuing impeachment against Rosenstein as a means of protecting the president. Meadows said Thursday that “any suggestion” that he was trying to discredit the Mueller investigation is “just not accurate.”
That doesn’t stop the president from conflating the two issues, however. And their increasingly aggressive attacks against the Justice Department have been noticed across Pennsylvania Avenue.
The friendship, however, goes beyond the Russia and Justice skirmishes, interviews with more than half-dozen current or former White House officials and Hill sources close to both men indicated. The president trusts them and values their honesty, viewing Meadows and Jordan as a bellwether of the heart of his base.
It’s why he frequently seeks their opinion on policy, inviting both men to the White House or calling up Meadows directly several times a week, a White House official said.
“Meadows is probably one of the top ones,” the White House official said. Another noted that Meadows has become part of Trump’s “kitchen cabinet” of advisers, as close as his friends who pop in and out of his weekend retreats at Mar-a-Lago and his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey.
While he doesn’t know Jordan on a personal level like that, the president “has gone out of his way to tell Jim and others how much he loves him on TV and how he’s one of the people who consistently comes to his defense,” one official said. Jordan, a former wrestler who relishes a good fight, has long had a reputation as the toughest interrogator on Capitol Hill; he’s now training those instincts on Trump’s real or perceived adversaries.
Both men have been frank with Trump at times, telling him, for example, that his tentative immigration accord with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) last fall was a no-go. Trump eventually ditched that framework, which included a respite for young immigrants brought to the country as children and some additional border enforcement.
They’ve also steered Trump away from GOP leadership’s advice, telling the president when they think Speaker Paul Ryan and his team are leading him down the wrong path.
“They won’t lie to him,” said one source familiar with their conversations. “They’ll tell him, ‘You definitely shouldn’t’ go along with the plan…. It’s gonna hurt you.’”
That was the case during last spring’s government spending fight. Both men encouraged Trump to play hardball with Democrats, rejecting their demands for increased domestic spending in exchange for more money for the military. When Ryan and McConnell were putting the finishing touches on a $1 trillion spending deal that included both, Meadows and Jordan warned Trump his supporters wouldn’t like it.
“They told him that if he did the ‘business as usual’ approach,’ the base would freak-out — that’s what happened,” said one source familiar with their conversation.
When Trump witnessed the backlash from the far-right on TV, then started tweeting that he just might veto the bill, Meadows and Jordan rushed the phones to encourage him: “Go and veto it!” they said. Trump ultimately signed the package into law, but vowed it would be the last time.
“They are people he goes to [to] help keep a pulse on where the base is at,” a White House official said.
The trio’s relationship first blossomed on the 2016 campaign trail, when Trump’s deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, facilitated an introduction between Meadows and the president. Trump viewed North Carolina as a key state, so his operation reached out to local politicians for help.
Meadows, a former real estate businessman, was more than happy to oblige. Meadows brought Jordan into the fold.
It wasn’t just their support that caught his attention, however. When Republicans were deserting him in droves following the October 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Meadows and Jordan’s wives, Debbie and Polly, came to his aid. The two women boarded a “women for Trump” bus and toured the South to rally support for him.
Trump still talks about it, according to a former campaign official.
“While a lot of Republicans were running for the hills, Jordan, Meadows and both of their wives doubled down for him when he needed them most,” the former official said. “Trump won’t ever forget that.”
The relationship has had some rocky points. The president trolled both men on Twitter when they sank the first Obamacare repeal effort in the House. Trump’s angry tweets visibly upset the usual cheery Meadows, who looked downcast for days after the public scolding. All was forgiven, however, when Meadow almost singlehandedly brought the effort back to life, striking an unlikely deal with centrist Republican Tom MacArthur (N.J.) — then convincing most of the Freedom Caucus to back it.
Trump privately credits Meadows with the success of tax reform, too — at least that’s what said at a meeting with Republicans last December, according to sources briefed on the meeting.
The comment caught participants off guard because Meadows wasn’t part of the core group of chairmen drafting the bill. But Meadows and Jordan had back-channelled some ideas to Trump, going around their leadership to present their politics directly to the president, including many that ended up in the final package.
Trump was so taken with the document when he first received it that he called Meadows to the White House and applauding his ideas in the Oval office before his CUTentire economic team, according to one source. A signed copy of that memo, signed by Trump, still hangs in Jordan’s office.
Trump, at times, has rewarded the loyalty. When a handful of former Ohio State University wrestlers accused Jordan, their former assistant coach, of turning a blind eye to alleged sexual abuse at the school, Trump came to his defense.
“Jim Jordan is one of the most outstanding people I’ve met since I’ve been in Washington,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One. “I believe him 100 percent. No question in my mind.”
Burgess Everett and Kyle Cheney contributed.