Group of conservative Republicans who once toppled party leadership finds new role in impeachment probe
The House Freedom Caucus rose to prominence as a rebellious band of about three dozen Republican lawmakers willing to buck their party establishment to tank legislation—or even topple House speakers—they deemed insufficiently conservative. Now the group has embraced a new role: President Trump’s de facto defense team in the impeachment investigation on Capitol Hill.
With closed-door depositions about to give way to public hearings, House Freedom Caucus members are poised to take on high-profile positions during impeachment’s next phase. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the Oversight Committee, told The Wall Street Journal he is planning a possible stint on the Intelligence Committee, which will hold its first public hearing Wednesday.
“If I’m on, I’m going to do the best that I can,” Mr. Jordan said, adding that he was preparing to help Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), who isn’t a Freedom Caucus member but is the top Republican on the panel. “We are united because we see this thing as a sham.”
Impeachment has galvanized Mr. Jordan and other leaders of the caucus, who approach their latest mission with the same ideological zeal that once drove them to battle the federal deficit and what they saw as presidential overreach by former President Barack Obama.
Freedom Caucus opposition
- influenced Ohio Republican John Boehner’s decision to resign as House speaker in 2015 and California Republican
- Kevin McCarthy’s decision to withdraw from the race to succeed him. The caucus also
- proved instrumental in President Trump’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, which later failed. The group’s legislative power diminished within the GOP caucus when Republicans lost the House majority last year and because the House GOP has been largely unified in its objections to Democratic-led legislation and impeachment.
Members of the Freedom Caucus, formerly in conflict with leadership, now coordinate closely with House GOP Minority Leader McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise (R., La.), and communicate frequently with the White House—and often Mr. Trump himself.
Though the formal portion of the probe started while Congress was in recess, caucus members Mr. Jordan and Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina have been present nearly every day for depositions. They arrive early in the morning and leave at roughly the same time as Chairman Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is leading the proceedings.
While Daniel Goldman, the director of investigations for the Intelligence Committee, has led questioning for Democrats, Stephen Castor, a lawyer who works for Mr. Jordan on the Oversight Committee, has dominated questions during the GOP’s time.
Freedom Caucus members and their allies have made a point of talking to reporters before and after the depositions, often beating Democrats to the cameras to put their spin on the day’s events first.
“Nothing new here,” Mr. Meadows said last month after Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, told House committees that the Trump administration made aid to Ukraine contingent on opening investigations into Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, as well as into unsupported allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Democrats say the president’s actions amount to an abuse of presidential power designed to boost his re-election prospects.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R., Ariz.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, said the group has been “integral in setting up the defense for President Trump and advocating for it,” a role he says the group is uniquely suited for.
“Any politician is a risk-taker on one hand, and on the other hand, they become risk-averse, and I think many in the Freedom Caucus are willing to take a risk,” Mr. Biggs said.
He likened the much-larger House GOP conference to a bulky, slow-moving cruise ship that can struggle to reach consensus on strategy or change course quickly to react to the daily news cycle. “You can’t turn on a dime,” he said.
The Freedom Caucus, by contrast, has the luxury of being smaller and more nimble—more like a speed boat, Mr. Biggs said. “We’re able to navigate, go real fast,” he said
The Freedom Caucus has shown division only once during the impeachment investigation: On Oct. 23 a group of Republicans, including members of the caucus like Mr. Biggs and Rep. Alex Mooney (R., W.Va.), who aren’t on the committees of jurisdiction, stormed into the secure area, saying they were upset they weren’t allowed into the hearings. Some of the members brought their cellphones into the room, a major breach of protocol. Mr. Meadows objected to breaking the rules and was one of the Republicans who took the phones away
Inside the secure deposition room in the U.S. Capitol, and outside, the lawmakers have called for the hearings to become public, which some now will be. Transcripts show how the caucus members have objected to the testimonies inside the secure room.
Democrats say Mr. Meadows is especially friendly, but once the testimony starts, the partisan swords come out.
“There are a number of very capable and intelligent members in the Freedom Caucus but unfortunately they are deploying all of their talents not to obtain the truth or to defend the constitution but rather to defend the president at all costs,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who has attended many of the depositions.
“It’s more than the checks, it’s the notes that come with them that really just blow me away,” Mr. Meadows said in an interview. Tears welled in his eyes as he recalled a check from an 87-year-old retired schoolteacher. “You get up the next morning and you go fight,” he said.
So this is why Trump doesn’t want officials to testify
If this is a sign of what’s to come, Republicans will soon regret forcing Democrats to make impeachment proceedings public. Over 10 hours, the transcript shows, they stumbled about in search of a counter-narrative to her damning account.
Yovanovitch detailed a Hollywood-ready tale about how Giuliani and two of his now-indicted goons hijacked U.S. foreign policy as part of a clownish consortium that also included Sean Hannity and a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor. Their mission: to oust the tough-on-corruption U.S. ambassador who threatened to frustrate Giuliani’s plans to get Ukraine to come up with compromising material on Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.
Mike Pompeo has a cameo as the feckless secretary of state who refuses to stand up for his diplomat out of fear of setting off an unstable Trump. It all culminated in a 1 a.m. call from State’s personnel director telling Yovanovitch to get on the next flight out of Kyiv. Why? “She said, ‘I don’t know, but this is about your security. You need to come home immediately.’ ”
Yovanovitch, overcome with emotion at one point in her testimony, said she later learned that the threat to her security was from none other than Trump, who, State officials feared, would attack her on Twitter if she didn’t flee Ukraine quickly.
Confronted with this Keystone Kops way of governing, Republicans didn’t really attempt to defend Trump’s actions. Instead, they pursued one conspiracy theory after another involving the Bidens, George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration, deep state social-media “tracking” and mishandling classified information. They ate up a good chunk of time merely complaining that Yovanovitch’s opening statement had been made public (which under the rules was allowed).
“Ambassador,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) interjected, “are you aware of anyone connected to you that might have given that to The Washington Post?”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) interjected: “Did you talk to the State Department about the possibility of releasing your opening statement to the press?”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) jumped in: “Ambassador Yovanovitch, do you believe that it is appropriate for your opening statement to be provided to The Washington Post?”
But Trump will need more than complaints about leaks to counter the narrative that Yovanovitch — and others — have documented.
Ukrainian officials had told her to “watch [her] back” because Yuri Lutsenko, a Ukrainian prosecutor with an unsavory reputation, was “looking to hurt” her and had several meetings with Giuliani toward that end. Lutsenko “was not pleased” that she continued to push for cleaning up Lutsenko’s office, and he tried to meet with Trump’s Justice Department to spread misinformation about her — including the now-recanted falsehood that she had given him a “do-not-prosecute list.”
She testified that wary Ukrainian officials knew as early as January or February that Giuliani was seeking damaging information on the Bidens and the Democrats — perhaps in exchange for Trump’s endorsement of the then-president’s reelection.
When Yovanovitch was attacked by Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr., among others, she asked for Pompeo to make a statement supporting her, but he didn’t do it because it might be “undermined” by a presidential tweet. (Pompeo did, apparently, have a private conversation asking Hannity to cease his attack on her.) Instead of support, she got career advice: Tweet nice things about Trump.
Notably, Republicans didn’t respond to her testimony by trying to make Trump’s behavior look good; they probed for ways to make Yovanovitch look bad.
They suggested she was part of a diplomatic conspiracy to monitor Trump allies such as Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs and Sebastian Gorka. They probed for damaging details on the Bidens (“Were you aware of just how much money Hunter Biden was getting paid by Burisma?”) and for ways to damage her credibility (“What was the closest that you’ve worked with Vice President Biden?”). Maybe Ukraine really did try to help Hillary Clinton in 2016, they posited. Maybe Ukrainian officials were “trying to sabotage Trump.” They asked if she ever said anything that might have led somebody to “infer a negative connotation regarding” Trump.
Meadows, struggling mightily to prove some wrongdoing by Yovanovitch, found he couldn’t pronounce the names he had been given — so he spelled them out. “I’m sorry, I’m not Ukrainian,” he said.
“Neither am I,” she replied.No, she’s what threatens Trump most: an honest American.