R-N.C., Freedom Caucus
Mark Meadows has represented North Carolina in the House of Representatives since 2013. He chairs the Freedom Caucus, which initially opposed the plan by House Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — causing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to pull the bill. The caucus eventually supported the version of the bill that came up for a vote in May 2017.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 11 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
It’s election night. Where are you? And tell me the story of your reaction as you watch what happens with the election of President Trump.
Well, I was in North Carolina, so obviously in a battleground state that I had told the president 10 days before the election that he would win by three points or greater. That was contrary to what the polls were saying at that particular point. But I travel around from place to place in my district, and I happened to be in one of the smaller rural communities and counties that I serve, and we were watching the elections come back. By that time, I believe North Carolina had already been called. But we were waiting for one of the others to drop, either Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or what was going to put it over the edge for President Trump.
Fairly late in the evening, the returns were coming back very good in Pennsylvania, and I think one group called Pennsylvania, and my wife and I hugged each other, realizing that that meant that it was probably going to be a President Trump that was inaugurated on Jan. 20. So North Carolina was not as much of a surprise to me. I campaigned with the president from what they say Murphy to Manteo, which is, you know, some 12 hours from one end [of the state] to the other, and I knew that the grassroots and this movement was going to support him in a swing state of North Carolina. Pennsylvania obviously was a bigger surprise, as was some of the other states that went his way.
We’ve talked to people around [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.), people around [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.), who said they were, before that night, they were prepared to work with a Hillary Clinton [as] president. They thought, we have majorities; we can get things done; there’s ways we can go. Do you have any special understanding of how they probably felt as they saw Donald Trump winning, and whether that was a good thing or a bad thing from their point of view?
I think they see it as a good thing. I can’t imagine anybody of the Republican Conference to believe that to be a bad thing. I mean, if you’re going to be out campaigning, I hope you’re not campaigning for the other side. That being said, obviously, I think it shocked a lot of people.
A few days before Nov. 8 here in Washington, D.C., based on my conversations with a few in leadership, there was a belief that not only were we going to lose the presidency, but that we were going to lose a number of House seats. I think the Trump wave that happened on Nov. 8 surprised even the most informed and learned individuals here in Washington, D.C., but it didn’t surprise moms and dads on Main Street.
What is it about him? What is the sentence you use or the paragraph you use to describe what was out there that everybody missed about Trump?
Well, they wanted to believe in hope again, and their government. And I can tell you, they were willing to overlook a whole lot of things to say that “All I want is someone who’s willing to stand with me.” Even if they’re politically incorrect in their rhetoric, they wanted someone who didn’t need the job. They saw Donald Trump as not needing the job financially. They saw Donald Trump as someone who was willing to talk about the things that perhaps they would only talk about, you know, around a dining room table. And we got to see that. I mean, I was probably most surprised in a Democratic county that I have the privilege of representing, talking to a whole lot of individuals, … some of them lifelong Democrats, who had come up to me and said that they were going to be voting for Donald Trump. And at that point, the polls and everything else would suggest that there’s no way that that would have happened.
But it just shows, when you pay attention to the people, it shows up at the ballot box, and when you ignore people, it shows up at the ballot box. And this was really more frustration among some who believed that Washington, D.C., had forgotten them, and that’s what showed up on Nov. 8.
You know him very well.
Did you talk to him very soon after the election?
I did not. … I can remember the first call that I got from him as a president-elect. He just called from New York and just to check on me, to see how I was doing. That’s the side of Donald Trump that a lot of people don’t see…. My assistant came in and said, “President-elect Donald Trump is on the phone for you,” and I thought there was some ask that was going to happen, you know. But he talked to me for five minutes, just to check on me, see how I was doing, and said, “Well, I look forward to seeing you in the new year.” That’s the kind of calls that consistently happen with this president that very rarely get reported.
… So this guy certainly said that when he was running for the presidency. What did you think he was going to be able to do? … What lay ahead for Trump, and what lay ahead for the Republicans in the Congress?
Well, I think two things. One is, we’ve had decades of career politicians trying to change the way that Washington, D.C., works, and it never changes, so you could do no worse than decades of career politicians occupying the White House. The second part of that is, is perhaps this person was bold enough to do things differently and not get swallowed by what we now refer to as “the swamp.” We do that because of this president’s ability to market and brand something. We call it “Drain the swamp.” Well, that didn’t happen until President Trump was talking about that on the campaign trail.
We were hopeful that here is a person coming into the Oval Office that would not get co-opted by the normal way of doing things in Washington, D.C., and that his allegiance to that union worker in Ohio, to that mom who is concerned about her kids in Florida, to perhaps that senior that is there wondering about what’s going to happen on Medicare in North Carolina, that he could assure all of those that “We’ve got your interests first; we’re going to make America great again,” with what was perhaps a corny hat that is now sought after, because people want to believe in the country that they had the privilege of calling home.
He almost immediately announces that [then-Republican National Committee Chair] Reince Priebus will be his chief of staff. Same press release he announces Steve Bannon will be his chief strategist. What did you see in the decision to put those two co-equal people that close to the Oval Office?
Well, it was a connection. Listen, it was one made out of loyalty. I can tell you that Steve Bannon was with him on the campaign trail along with a few other people who are still at the White House. Reince Priebus was seen as someone who was willing to fight for him even when the polls did not look good. So it was a loyalty decision that he made to bring them both in. I think it showed really the dichotomy that you might have there, where you had establishment Republican with non-establishment strategist coming together in the White House to hopefully change the way that we do things.
People underestimate this president. They believe him to be some things that he’s not. I know that I’ve underestimated him. And I chuckle, because I see others underestimating him every day. He is a lot more of a strategic thinker and certainly someone who does what I call creative chaos. He creates the chaos to see what ideas will be bantered back and forth while being a keen observer in a situation where people think he’s not observing.
… Let’s drill down into health care. So Paul Ryan and the leadership in the House come to the decision that this is where everything should start, that job one is going to be Obamacare. I take it the President agrees with that. Were you happy to hear the decision that this is where the session would begin and that Speaker Ryan’s ideas were the ideas that were going to go first…?
I think there’s two parts to that question you just asked. Is starting with a repeal and replacement of Obamacare certainly important because of the insurance premiums that people continue, to this day, express dissatisfaction with and believe they are far too high? To start with that is yes. The second part of your question, though, is was I pleased with Paul Ryan’s plan. I think therein is part of the issue, is if it’s a Paul Ryan plan, then indeed it’s not a GOP plan.
Now, some would suggest that it met the broad principles, but I think we learned and can look back in hindsight that perhaps a lot more inclusive debate as we saw on tax reform would serve the American people and this president better.
So help me understand Ryan at this moment. What’s he trying to do? … You guys were certainly advocating something be done about Obamacare. What was Ryan up against? And did he understand what he should have been understanding?
The speaker obviously has over 240 members of the GOP House that he’s got to contend with, 435 members in Congress, so his ability to understand each priority and motivation is perhaps somewhat different than someone who just represents 750,000 people from North Carolina. That being said, I think that probably the critical component of all of that is the American people who were waiting for relief, lower premiums, did not understand why there was not a bill on the president’s desk on Jan. 20, when the president was sworn in. They believed that at least we should have voted on something and sent it to the Senate so that it was there.
You can’t campaign on something for seven years and then ask for another seven months to deliver. I think that’s part of what the speaker was up against. Fair or unfair, that was what he was up against, that expectation. It’s still a critical component. We want to make sure that health care is there for everybody, pre-existing conditions are covered, but we’ve got to bring the cost of that down. When you’re paying more for health insurance than you are for your mortgage, there’s a problem.
It felt like they were trying to do a freight train and just kind of roll everybody up and get it done, and for the Freedom Caucus, you guys put the brakes on.
Yeah. I don’t want to overemphasize the power of the Freedom Caucus, because its only power is being a voice for millions of people who feel like they’ve been forgotten. Our caucus really has its power as a derivative of the American people’s frustration with this place. Yet at the same time, it put me in a very precarious situation to be against a speaker’s plan, and be against a speaker’s plan that the president had endorsed. And yes, it failed the two fundamental questions for us. Those fundamental questions: Would it bring premiums down, and could we cover more people with the plan? We felt like it did not. And until those two things were actually solved, we couldn’t offer our support, no matter who was behind it.
How would you describe the president’s role … trying to push legislation through? Cheerleader? Salesman? CEO? Lots of people have described what he was trying to do in different ways during this part of the process. What do you describe it as?
Well, I got to see every aspect of this president, from a salesman—and I think cheerleader, it would not be the correct word, but a salesman [to] a CEO, because a CEO says: “Let’s just get it done. We’ll work on it and perfect it later. Let’s just get it done.” A salesman tries to put all the good parts of a plan out there. He did both of those.
I think the other part of that is, you know, the leverage in the power broker that he is, when there was a no, I understood up close and personal the dissatisfaction of this president, and I wouldn’t want to wish that on anybody.
He really basically threatens you at one moment.
Well, you know, he calls me out. Now I took that—listen, I took that in the spirit of what does a salesman do. He’s going to call me out and let my peers work on me. The problem is—
What did he say? Can you tell me?
He says, “Well, you know, we’ve got some of these guys that, you know, like Mark Meadows, you know,” and I was in the back of the Conference. He says, “He’s against us, but I think in the end, he’s going to be with us, right, Mark?” And he says, “But if not, I’m coming after you.” I took that in the spirit of he wanted to get it done. But all eyes were on me at that particular point, so the peer pressure is great.
But when you start caring about what Washington, D.C., says, what the president didn’t understand was the same voter that voted for him on Nov. 8, they are the ones that I’m most concerned about what they think. So it was the peer pressure that I was getting from back home in North Carolina that was more important than perhaps a few colleagues at a GOP Conference.
He works pretty hard to break some of your guys off and bring them over to the other side.
Yeah, we’re probably a tougher nut to crack than most others.
What did he try to do? How did he do it? What was his method? I mean, I remember Obama was always accused of… He never has anybody over to dinner, never does anything personal, no back-slapping, no empathy for what you guys were up against up in Congress. How is Trump different from that?
Well, I think there have been more members of Congress who have seen the Oval Office for the first time under this presidency than any presidency in history, and that speaks well of a president who is willing to not only be humble enough, and some people don’t put the word
“humble” and Donald Trump together, but be humble enough to have members of Congress come to the Oval Office. But the other part of that is, it makes a big difference. For many members, if they could get to come to the Oval Office or fly on Air Force One, they’ll change their vote.
Freedom Caucus is a little bit different in that most of their constituency does not applaud them just for getting a ride on Air Force One or going to the Oval Office. They want to make sure that they represent the people, so that’s what makes the Freedom Caucus perhaps a little bit more strategic in terms of how we were able to use the power of negation is what I call it, you know, if we’re not providing those votes.
But during the health care debate, it was all of the above. We were invited to the White House. The vice president was dispatched to come meet with Freedom Caucus members. There were a number of meetings. There [were] late-night phone calls. And here was the big conundrum. Most of the Freedom Caucus guys not only voted for this president, but campaigned probably more aggressively for this president than other members of the GOP Conference.
So right out of the gate, there’s a friction point between a president that many of us campaigned for and with in my case, and I didn’t want to be against anything that he was [for]. But he used every tool in his tool bag to get us to yes, and a number of us just felt like it didn’t go far enough.
… I think he said he’d dispatch Bannon at one moment over to issue an ultimatum, if that’s not too strong a word. Is it too strong a word for what Bannon did?
You know, listen, he used a number of different things in terms of threatening primaries, threatening real consequences when it comes to that. But many members of the Freedom Caucus hold their position very loosely. You know, I serve at the pleasure of the people of North Carolina, so if you hold that loosely and say, at some point, “I’m going to give up this temporary job,” it’s a powerful thing. Now, if I wanted that job so badly that I was worried about what I’m going to do here in the opinion of this person or that person, a threat from Steve Bannon or anybody else would have had a lot more impact. You’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing, and when you’re a representative of the people, the main thing are the people that you represent.
… You know the president well enough to know that when Ryan drives over to the White House on Friday, on that Friday afternoon and says, “We don’t have it; we’re not going to make it,” how does the president react?
I don’t think he was happy with Chairman Mark Meadows of the Freedom Caucus at that particular point. In fact, I know he wasn’t.
How do you know?
Well, I mean, he expressed it. Others expressed it. Some advised me not to answer his phone call if he called, because he was upset with me, probably more me than the Freedom Caucus, in that because we do have a personal relationship—
… So it doesn’t happen, and then it does.
Right, right. I mean, failure is not an option. And it’s not because you want to put a legislative victory on the wall. It’s because you’ve got real people with real concerns that are calling your office and talking about the fact that they can’t afford their premiums; they can’t afford their deductibles. Failure is not an option. I had two choices at that particular point. I could just assume that this presidency was going to be one of contention between the conservative movement and this new president, or I could re-engage and work with some of my more moderate Republican friends and figure out a path forward. I’m a firm believer that it’s more in how you handle disappointment than appointment, so in the disappointment of failing on that particular Friday, you know, [I] became a phoenix that rose out of the ashes to say: “How do we make this work on the House side, and how do we compromise? How do we change some of the stumbling blocks that would keep us from voting for the current bill?”
As much as this might be one of a division that is highlighted in this broadcast, it’s important to show that at that particular point, it was not just a member of the Freedom Caucus and a member of the Tuesday Group that got together. It was actually with the support of leadership. … Ultimately, as you know, we were able to find a compromise that at least provided a bill to get out of the House.
Who initiates the Rose Garden celebration afterward? … How does it happen?
The president obviously, in his typical fashion, wanted to acknowledge the effort of other people, so he initiated that celebration in the Rose Garden that particular day. Certainly he called me, he called the speaker, and I think it was a real question mark on whether there was going to be enough votes. I know I spoke to the president the morning of the votes, and I told him that it would be tight, but that he could take it to the bank. You know, it would be enough votes to pass it on the House floor.
… Must have been a huge relief to him this late in his—everybody’s counting 100 days and all of this.
Well, I don’t know if it was a huge relief to him, but it was a huge relief to me. You know, he had so many things. His real passion was more on the tax reform side of things, and he saw this as an impediment to getting tax reform done, and potentially a failure on health care being a sign of things to come on a failure on tax reform. I assured him that it was viewed very differently. Both in the Conference and back home around the dining room table, those were two separate issues with different passions and different constituencies. And yet, not knowing exactly what to expect of this place, where literally there’s two ways things get done here, slow and never, and I think he was coming to find that the slow part of that, as a business guy, it just drives you crazy, and I know it drives this president crazy as well.
The celebration is viewed by many as a premature act, as a “Gee, this is a pathetic spiking of the football on the 20-yard line instead of scoring the touchdown. He’s so naive, he doesn’t really understand it. And here’s everybody. This is a photo op, and it’s just an example of the inexperienced president of the United States.”
No, I would disagree totally on that. Everybody wants to celebrate something. They want to clap and celebrate something. This president understands this. Most of the time you want to celebrate your kids or your grandkids, and you want to applaud. Yet there are many times when we just unbelievably clap with applause about something that, in the big scheme of things, is just a step forward. And that was a huge step forward. I mean, if anybody could have believed that we were going to not only get it out of the House and truly come within a vote or two in the Senate, because that’s how close it really was, you know, at the end of the day, you can do all kinds of counts, but a vote or two within the Senate, it was huge.
Now the difference is, with the Affordable Care Act, when it came into play, it took months and months and months. It was an ambitious goal to get done in the first 100 days of this presidency. But I think that a Rose Garden celebration was certainly appropriate, and certainly, if nothing more, it sent the message to the American people that “I campaigned believing this, we’re moving forward with this, and I heard you on Nov. 8 and before.”
When the skinny bill finally comes up for a vote [in the Senate], and [Sen. John] McCain (R-Ariz.) is about to do the thumbs down, you’re obviously watching, and you’ve been around long enough to wonder whether it’s actually going to get through or not. Take me into your thought process then and what you were watching, and how you reacted to McCain’s vote.
Well, we knew that we had very little room for that. … We were working behind the scenes in a bicameral way, trying to find the path to an ultimate victory on health care, because the bill they were debating was very different than ours. Yet I think there was a surprise, certainly by me, that John McCain would give a thumbs down on at least working toward a solution and allowing it to continue on in the debate.
Bitter disappointment. I’m glad that I was not John McCain having to go back to Arizona, because I know how they felt about him in North Carolina at that particular time. And yet, you know, everybody has to vote their conscience, and they have to vote their state, so there’s no personal animosity toward the senator from Arizona, but there was bitter disappointment with the people that I represent.
It’s at about this time that the president, angry, disappointed, sad, starts to tweet about Leader McConnell. They have a real go at each other, including a long and ugly telephone call full of expletives. What is happening with Donald Trump vis-à-vis the leader?
You know, I wasn’t privy to those phone calls. I’ve read the reports, as you have. I can tell you that the president, again, is just articulating what the American people feel about the Senate. I can tell you that there is a belief among many GOP members of the House, less so in the Senate, that they should go to a 50-vote threshold. They believe the Democrats would do it. In fact, the Democrats did do it on certain items when they were in power. And the days of a 60-vote cloture vote need to be over.
I’ve heard arguments on both sides. I can tell you that the way that we’ve been doing it in the 60-vote cloture rule has not been there since the founding of our country. It was an add-on. It was a change. Some say it’s part of the institution, but the institution is not working well on behalf of the average mom, dad, aunt or uncle or niece or nephew in America. They don’t understand the gridlock, and part of the gridlock is that. In the House, many times we say that senators take more naps than they do votes. It is critically important that we at least get people on record, put them on record on what they believe, instead of hiding behind this 60-vote measure that allows them not to take a vote.
We see the president through this period really angry, lots of “fire and fury” at North Korea, lots of things like this, back and forth and back and forth. What do you make of what he’s actually doing with the tweet storms?
The president communicates with the American people through Twitter in a way that is both applauded and criticized on a daily basis, and the fact that we’re talking about his tweets let us know that it is a communication method that obviously is effective. Now, you can argue over what it’s effective at, but it is effective nonetheless. I think that he, through his tweets, is uniquely able to let the American people know that this is what he’s thinking. This is what he’s concerned about, and ultimately, something needs to be done about it. It’s part of that creative chaos that I talked about earlier, where he’s able to create issues of uncertainty at times, that it provides for good negotiations. …
Do you read them in the morning? Do you get up in the morning and read them?
Normally I do read his tweets in the morning. I’m in that unique position that I’m going to get asked about them during the day, so early in the morning, I’ll normally read his tweets. I’ll read a couple of headlines. I do my quiet time, and then I head to Capitol Hill.
Charlottesville, speaking of tweets and trouble. Southern Congressman, what did you think about how that went down?
You know, it really didn’t play out in North Carolina like you would think it would be, with North Carolina being a Southern state. I think there was a whole lot more written about it than actually was the reality of it. I think at times we have a tendency to overreact to either a comment here or a misplaced comment there. We all hate racial discrimination, and certainly I condemned not only that, but I condemn anybody who doesn’t condemn it.
And yet, at the time, there are times when we look at things and take things very, very differently. I wasn’t there. I followed it as you did, in the media. But really, in terms of that particular issue, it didn’t play out in North Carolina in a negative or a positive way, the way that it seemed to take over the national narrative. Part of that is, you know, we have to have a zero tolerance for racism, and someone of my age has seen us make great strides there. And to suggest that we can go backward on that area, in that area, would certainly not be something that anyone should support.
How about you personally? How did you feel about it?
Again, I didn’t follow it personally that closely. You know, I think probably, for me, what I saw was a narrative that was out there, that got hijacked very quickly by a number of different factions to suggest what it was or was not. And certainly in the moment, I was very quick to denounce any form of racism being accepted. I think we’ve just got to be consistent there.
… We talked to [Sen.] Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who said, “This is a stain”; that his biggest worry was, and a number of his colleagues’, this was a stain on the Republican Party itself that the president of the United States might take this anti-Semitic and whatever it is position that they all thought he took. And he said, “We felt an obligation to write back to him.”
Yeah, but this president is not anti-Semitic. One of my passions—in fact, one of the primary reasons I’m in Congress is because of my pro-Israel, pro-Jewish stand, and this president has probably embarked on more things, moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, giving clemency to a rabbi who had been punished for 28 years, doing a number of things from a pro-Israel standpoint. So the narrative, perhaps, didn’t sit as well with me, because I know what I was seeing up close and personal what this president was doing with the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, and perhaps that’s one reason why I didn’t see it in a light that some others might have seen it.
What did you think of Flake’s … speech about what’s happening in Washington, and especially with this president?
Yeah, I think I commented on national TV. … I think my comment that day is what I would say today: [Most] of the people that I serve could care less about what happens in Washington, D.C. They care about what happens to them in their state and in their community, and to suggest that the opinions of one senator from Arizona or one House member from North Carolina has an impact beyond that—they care about what happens back home, and we should care about what happens back home more so than what happens in Washington, D.C.
What were your thoughts about the Alabama race, coming as it did? The Republicans have had this unbelievably difficult few months leading up to the tax reform bill. Along comes Alabama. The president supports Judge Roy Moore, and it doesn’t go well. Give me your thoughts about what impact that has on the party itself, on GOP people, as they look forward to the midterms.
Well, I think it shows that there’s still a battle. And I don’t know that the battle is necessarily with the candidate Roy Moore. And it’s not with the candidate Luther Strange. I happened to support Mo Brooks, who is a member of the House and came in third in that runoff. But you know, there still is a battle between the establishment and the grassroots, and what happens when you have battles is that you have casualties. And the Alabama Senate race is a casualty of a battle that is going on and continues to be waged in Washington, D.C., for the heart and soul of not only who the GOP is going to be, but who we are going to be as a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
When we look at that, the ways of doing business, whether it’s a McConnell-driven or a President Trump-driven initiative, it really needs to be a people-driven initiative. And if we forget that as a Republican Party, it will show up every other November.
… My final question: The tax bill happens; it comes together. A lot of people say to us: “It’s what you would expect Republicans to do. If you can’t get a tax bill together by the Republican president or Republican House or Republican Senate, my God, what could they do?” A lot of people say, “Well, this just proves that there isn’t a civil war. They could all come together for something that really mattered.” A lot of other people I have talked to say: “They’re papering over fundamental fractures and fissures inside the party itself as they head to the midterms. They had to have the tax break. They had to have it, or the party was in real jeopardy.” Where are you on that?
Well, you don’t fix a party by a tax bill. I can tell you, if nothing more, if you discount everything else that I’ve said here today, if the emphasis of this particular segment is on a party and not the people, we’ve missed it. I think that that is the fracture, or the friction, as I would probably describe it, that is going on. Do we want to put an emphasis on politicians or people? Do we want to put an emphasis on the people that we care about or political careers? I can tell you, I came here not for a career. A career is what I had before I got here. This is a temporary job, and it should be temporary. That’s the reason why most people want term limits. And having been here, you know, I think they’re right.
… When Trump was elected, he wasn’t the normal GOP candidate. … When does the party become Trump’s party? Because it does seem to have happened that way. How do you view the party at this point, and is it indeed Trump’s party?
Any time that you have a president that is voted into office, the party naturally becomes aligned with that president. I think it’s more of a Trump agenda than it is Trump’s party, and I think that the possible friction and fractures that you see being played out sometimes on the headlines is really a function of a GOP that is trying to wrestle with, are they going to revert back to previous days of previous administrations, or are they going to embrace a more populist movement that this president was able to tap into and recognize when others couldn’t?
Certainly back home in North Carolina, the vast majority of the Republicans like the fact that he’s shaking things up in Washington, D.C. The more that he shakes things up here, the better they like it, because the previous way that things were done oftentimes would ignore the priorities of some of the people back home.