Closest of friends, Meadows and Jordan split over McCarthy
Jan. 7, 2023 Updated Sat., Jan. 7, 2023 at 8:48 p.m.
As members of Congress, Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) formed a brutally powerful duo on Capitol Hill last decade, developing a niche specialty in blowing things up.
In 2015, Meadows delivered the blow that helped sink the incumbent House speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio), and Jordan led the charge over the next two weeks to help defeat the establishment choice, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for speaker.
But for the past week, the co-founders of the House Freedom Caucus have been on opposing sides of Washington’s biggest fight: McCarthy’s marathon attempt to become House speaker.
Jordan served as lead emissary to the many conservatives who don’t trust the veteran GOP leader. All week he darted around the House floor, buttonholed defectors, hustled to talk to top McCarthy advisers and ducked into at least a dozen closed-door meetings.
Three blocks away, in a corner townhouse that is home to a conservative nonprofit, Meadows played host to daily meetings of up to 20 staunch McCarthy critics, turning this corner of Washington into the new nerve center of “Make America Great Again” Republicans in Congress.
Meadows, who served seven years in the House and left in 2020 to become White House chief of staff to then-president Donald Trump, has asserted that he played no role in the uprising against McCarthy.
“That’s not me, that’s member-led,” Meadows told CNN reporters as he entered the townhouse Thursday morning.
But newer members of the Freedom Caucus acknowledged that Meadows served as spiritual adviser during their recent clashes with McCarthy, through the lens of his own battles last decade with Boehner.
“Mark is a friend and, as somebody who’s been through this place, a mentor,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), just entering his second term, said Friday. “He’s been through this place, he understands the dynamics, has the relationships. So to be able to rely on some of his counsel has been important.”
The McCarthy episode exposed not just a fault in the broader GOP conference of 222 Republicans, but also a deepening rift within today’s version of the Freedom Caucus. On one side sit the more senior members like Jordan, who was first elected in 2006 and is poised to chair the Judiciary Committee, as well as Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), an eight-year incumbent who serves on McCarthy’s leadership team.
They remain deeply conservative, but they don’t quite hold the burn-everything-down ethos of the caucus’s earliest days, as they now stand to actually hold power once the House gets up and running.
On the other side sit relative newcomers such as Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who embrace the model that Meadows perfected, using social media and Fox News appearances to draw attention to their cause.
Of the 20 Republicans who repeatedly voted for a conservative alternative to McCarthy, just three have served more than three terms.
A 21st Republican, not aligned with the Freedom Caucus, regularly voted “present,” effectively sitting out the fight.
The conservatives fractured even further Friday after two-thirds of the group broke apart to support McCarthy during afternoon votes. The final bloc of six holdouts put McCarthy through one more humiliation late Friday, before finally letting him win on the 15th ballot early Saturday, the most since before the Civil War.
Now, after all the concessions these conservatives won, today’s Freedom Caucus is poised to have more influence than Meadows and Jordan dreamed of when they founded it eight years ago as a breakaway group for roughly three dozen Republicans. But these recent fractures raise doubts about the Freedom Caucus’s ability to stay united, or whether the members will flail and waste this new political muscle they’ve acquired.
All signs indicate that Meadows and Jordan remain close friends, but their split on McCarthy reflects the awkward future for a hard-right conservative caucus founded at a time when none of them had a foothold in power.
Meadows holds the title of senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit founded by former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
After a bipartisan lobbying firm grew too big for that Capitol Hill townhouse, Meadows and DeMint swooped in to pick up the lease and turned it into both a modern think tank – it includes a TV studio for members to do media hits – and a social networking club.
Young conservatives gather for “First Friday” happy hours in the courtyard, and Freedom Caucus members and their allies use the outpost as a regular hangout for venting about everything from the Biden administration to establishment Republicans.
It’s a lot nicer setup than the dingy basement of the now-shuttered Tortilla Coast restaurant on Capitol Hill, which the far-right lawmakers used as their gathering spot seven years ago.
“The food’s not as good, but the coffee is better,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who has never joined the Freedom Caucus but is a regular guest as an ideological kindred spirit.
The past week, as the meetings inside the Meadows group grew longer and McCarthy kept getting embarrassed, veteran Republicans saw the hand of their old adversary at work.
“Pretty telling,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a close ally of previous speakers Boehner and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said early Friday. “If they’re meeting in his townhouse, he’s at least a fly on the wall. But knowing Mark – and I know him pretty well – I’m sure he’s trying to exert some influence.”
Meadows never reached a peaceful accord with McCarthy, and that enmity and distrust lasted long after he left the House to become Trump’s chief of staff.
In the days leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, McCarthy accused Meadows of poisoning Trump’s thinking so much that he believed the 2020 election had been stolen.
“I can only imagine that’s coming from Mark. Mark’s lying to him,” McCarthy wrote in a text message to a top Meadows aide, according to documents produced by the Jan. 6 committee.
An aide to Meadows declined to respond to a request for comment. While Trump and other alumni from his administration worked votes for McCarthy, Meadows remained publicly silent.
When they did work together, Meadows and Jordan could derail plenty of things that seemed to have wide bipartisan support. In December 2018, on the eve of a planned vote for a big government funding bill, Meadows bragged to reporters about how he and Jordan booked themselves on Trump’s favorite Fox shows to try to influence his thinking on the bipartisan legislation.
The next day, Trump backed out of the deal and a 35-day partial government shutdown ensued.
Jordan was the ideological leader of the group, and Meadows served as the frontman. Meadows reveled in talking to all forms of media – mainstream, liberal, conservative, TV, print, digital – giving his phone number to just about any reporter who asked.
When he became minority leader in 2019, McCarthy committed himself to making peace with Jordan, to both unify the caucus and to gain an ally who might help him win hard-right votes in a future speaker’s race. He persuaded Jordan to take the ranking Republican spot on the critical Oversight Committee, and eventually the more powerful Judiciary Committee.
But McCarthy went further and started inviting Jordan to the type of leadership meetings that previous GOP leaders forbade the staunch conservative from entering. A trust developed, and that was on full display during his battle for speaker.
After McCarthy failed on the first vote Tuesday, Jordan delivered a nominating speech on his behalf.
“The toughest times in life are when you get knocked down,” Jordan said, looking to the center of the chamber where the archconservatives usually gather. “The question is, can you come back? And I’ve always seen him be able to do that. We need to rally around him.”
All week Jordan’s allies served as go-betweens, such as Thursday morning when Massie went into full sprint into the Meadows-DeMint townhouse to deliver a message to the GOP defectors.
Though a past participant in coup attempts against his own leaders, Massie stuck with McCarthy and Jordan. As a result, Massie may end up with a slot on a new committee to investigate the Justice Department, as conservatives have demanded.
Seven years ago, with Meadows and Jordan united against him, McCarthy’s speaker bid got rejected. With Jordan in his camp this time, and Meadows several blocks away, McCarthy finally eked out the win to claim the speaker’s gavel.
And the next few months could be awkward, for such close friends, if the guests at Meadows’ townhouse keep trying to plot to undermine the new speaker and his wingman, Jordan.
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