(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump trained his fire on members of his own party Thursday, declaring in the aftermath of the Republican's failed health care push that the conservative Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire GOP agenda. He vowed to "fight them" in 2018 if they don't get behind him.
The early-morning tweet from Trump highlighted the growing schism in a Republican party that controls the White House and both branches of Congress yet appears to be teetering on the precipice of a civil war. Republicans plunged into a blame game over the demise of the years-long push to repeal and replace President Barack Obama's signature health care legislation, with members sniping at each other over how much they can work with Democrats — or even the White House.
Trump's anger at the Freedom Caucus for posing as a stubborn impediment to his governing runs the risk of alienating the conservative base that fueled his rise during last year's Republican primaries and has to this point remained loyal to the president.
With his poll numbers falling and his plans to move onto tax reform and a robust infrastructure program imperiled, Trump took to Twitter to attack the conservative group that many in the White House hold responsible for sabotaging last week's health care vote.
"The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!" Trump said.
But as the White House considered flexing its muscle against the Freedom Caucus, the group remained unbowed, with several members immediately hitting back against a president whose agenda has stalled, whose approval ratings are hovering below 40 percent and who has been dogged by the ongoing probe into contacts between his associates and Russian officials.
"It didn't take long for the swamp to drain @realDonaldTrump," tweeted Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. "No shame, Mr. President. Almost everyone succumbs to the D.C. Establishment."
And Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who criss-crossed the country to campaign for Trump last year, tweeted what may have been a veiled shot at House Speaker Paul Ryan. Labrador seemed to recall the time Ryan stopped actively campaigning for the celebrity businessman in the wake of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted about groping women.
"Freedom Caucus stood with u when others ran," Labrador wrote. "Remember who your real friends are. We're trying to help u succeed."
Most of the GOP no-voters represent safely Republican seats — some drawn to ensure they stay that way — and whose grip on power would only be threatened by a primary challenger. They have also taken a stand knowing that while Trump is popular in their districts, they are equally so.
But some Republicans seemed emboldened by the White House's prodding: Grand Rapids businessman Brian Ellis challenged Amash to a primary in 2014 and said Thursday he may do so him again.
"It's the same old thing with the Freedom Caucus: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Ellis said. "The Freedom Caucus didn't care. And for Amash to reject them is to not reflect what I know to be the desire of the constituents of this district."
The tweet was the latest step in Trump's apparent evolution from blaming Democrats to members of his own party for the biggest defeat his White House has faced so far. Last week, Trump publicly pointed to the other party for refusing to cooperate on the bill, an incredulity-defying comment since no Democrat was eager to replace Obamacare, nor did the White House conduct any real outreach across the aisle.
But behind the scenes, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and chief strategist Steve Bannon pushed for a vote even after it was clear the GOP bill did not have enough support to pass. The plan was to publicly identify Republicans who broke with the president and potentially put them in Trump's crosshairs, according an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Ryan talked them out of demanding the vote, saying it would endanger members of their own party. But Trump is now considering retribution for those who did not support him, which could include support for primary challengers or using the trappings of the presidency — including using Air Force One for presidential rallies in the members' home districts — to get them in line and silence their criticisms of the White House, according to the official.
But Ryan on Thursday said he was sympathetic to the president's angry tweet, which came a day after a number of outside conservative groups met with White House senior officials to discuss the president's agenda, including the failed health bill.
"I understand the president's frustration. I share his frustration," said Ryan. "About 90 percent of our conference is for this bill to repeal and replace Obamacare and about 10 percent are not and that's not enough to pass a bill."
Ryan also said that he worried that the defiant Republicans would push Trump "into working with Democrats" on health care, a result that he believed would not lead to a bill adherent to conservative principles. The White House has suggested in recent days that it might be willing to work with some Democrats on the measure. Ryan's comment drew sharp criticism Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, further showcasing the GOP's intraparty divisions.
"We have come a long way in our country when the speaker of one party urges a president NOT to work with the other party to solve a problem," Corker tweeted. In an interview later, he added: "It's not the kind of thing the leader, the speaker of the House should be saying."
Into the brewing battle stepped an unlikely would-be peacemaker: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who once called fellow Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "a liar" on the Senate floor, said he was "working night and day" to find common ground to deliver on the promise to repeal Obamacare.
"The only way for us to govern and deliver on our promises is for Republicans not to turn the cannons on each other but stand united behind shared principles," Cruz said.