For years, Jordan led a band of misfit conservatives who grappled not so much with Democrats, but Republicans: helping drive two GOP speakers of the House out of town, killing bills that didn’t pass purity tests, shutting down the government. Jordan became such a despised member of his conference that some of his colleagues began suggesting to party leaders that they redistrict him out of his seat.
But, in a recent meeting in the basement of the Capitol, on the eve of the first hearings of the impeachment inquiry, Jordan spoke to his Republican colleagues like a coach trying to spark the will to win.
“This process is anything but fair!” he said, according to people in the room. Standing in front of his rapt colleagues, Jordan accused Democrats of trampling the president’s right to defend himself and encouraged his fellow Republicans to attack the proceedings.
The moment highlighted an extraordinary turn in Jordan’s career from tormentor of leadership to leader himself — a tacit acknowledgment that in President Trump’s Republican Party, the Lord of the Gadflies now oversees a pretty big kingdom.
He was once one of the most detested members of the Republican caucus, but now other rank-and-file House Republicans are looking to Jordan, who is leading the charge to protect Trump by setting the course on how best to defend the president.
For the past two weeks, he played that role for millions to see, and he is also working behind the scenes, running practice rounds before hearings.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that the House Intelligence Committee would hold impeachment hearings, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took the rare step of removing a Republican from the committee just so he could add Jordan. The move would have been virtually unheard of just a year ago, when Jordan ran a campaign against McCarthy for minority leader (this, after sinking McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House in 2015).
“Jim has always had obvious talents; it was a question about how well he played with others,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who as former chief deputy whip would frequently spar with Jordan. “Now he’s in a leadership position, and the heavy yoke of leadership has moored him into the team in a very constructive way.”
Jordan has made a splash in the impeachment hearings, sitting hunched in shirt sleeves, peering over his glasses and questioning witnesses with the intensity of a prosecutor, the speed of an auctioneer and the whirring mind of a conspiracy theorist. He has quizzed Trump officials about their lack of contacts with the president. And he led the charge in claiming Democrats have no “firsthand knowledge” linking the president to a scheme to pressure Ukraine — a rallying cry that Trump and the White House promptly began tweeting.
“The Democrats have never accepted the will of the American people,” Jordan said Tuesday during a marathon of public testimony. “The Democrats don’t trust the American people.”
Trump, who, according to two GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about strategy, had personally requested that Jordan be moved to the Intelligence Committee, has appreciated the performance. Another Trump associate said the president has been calling Jordan frequently to encourage his attacks on the impeachment inquiry.
“There has been no greater supporter of President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda or greater defender from these left-wing attacks than Jim Jordan,” said David Bossie, a Trump ally and longtime acquaintance of Jordan’s. “And the president recognizes fighters when he sees one.”
Jordan’s willingness to fight has surprised exactly no one; that’s always been his way — the National Collegiate Athletic Association champion wrestler, the committee member who thought the Benghazi report didn’t go far enough, the congressman who once tried to impeach the IRS commissioner.
“What’s surprising to me is who he is fighting for,” said Michael Steel, who served as spokesman for former House speaker John A. Boehner. “Based on his years of stated priorities from a conservative point of view, it doesn’t make much sense that he has become this president’s most zealous defender.”
Jordan and Trump may seem like an odd couple — the purist legislator and the ideologically malleable executive — until you consider the ways the rules of game have changed. Once, politics was an Olympic sport played by Greco-Roman standards; now it’s more likely to feature Wrestlemania’s walk-on music, dropkicks and smashing people with foreign objects. In both, the goal is not to get pinned.
“I really feel like he thinks like an athlete,” Jordan said of Trump in an interview.
And so the wrestling coach became the tag-team partner of the trash-talking champ. Imitating his poses, whipping up his fans, carrying his belt.
It’s the story of Jordan and Trump. It’s the story of the Republican Party.
On Wednesday afternoon, after more than four hours of explosive testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland (“Was there a ‘quid pro quo’? With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”), Jordan got his turn in the ring.
“Ambassador, when did it happen?” Jordan shouted, his glasses resting on the tip of his nose, a gash above his eye from bumping into a secure hearing room door, and a comb-over swept across his forehead.
“When did what happen?” a confused Sondland asked.
“The announcement!” Jordan said. In his continued effort to paint the hearings as much ado about nothing, Jordan was pointing out that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky never announced investigations into Trump’s opponents, and yet he still received the money. It was perhaps less of a sparring match with a witness than an attempt to turn the whole thing into a joke, into a version of an Abbott and Costello routine.
“Do you know who was in the meeting?” Jordan asked.
“What meeting?” Sondland responded.
“The meeting that never happened!”
Trump has long loved Jordan’s ability to make moments like these. In fact, according to the book “A Hill to Die On,” by Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, Trump once invited Jordan to the White House to witness the signing of a coal deregulation bill (even though Jordan has virtually no coal-related jobs in his district), just to tell him that he “kicked [Chris] Cuomo’s butt” during a CNN segment.
“I liked him the first time I met him,” Jordan said in his office between hearings this week. “He can get things done under pressure when it counts. I like his fight. I like the fact that he’s on the offense. I like the fact that he came here to shake up this town.”
Jordan sat at his desk, his eyes flitting between the television over his shoulder and the scattered papers on his desk — legal pads filled with scrawled notes, annotated transcripts of hearings, an 18-page memo he had written and distributed to his colleagues for how to best rebut claims that Trump had abused his power in a call with Zelensky. Jordan has been pulling such late hours that he keeps a sticky note stuck to his office door, just in case he doesn't make it home for the night. "Member sleeping," it says.
“You sense that there is this energy and charisma and leadership about him,” he continued. “I think it’s contagious.”
Jordan caught the Trump bug earlier than most. He didn’t endorse during the primary, but he supported Trump “enthusiastically” as soon as he wrapped up the nomination.
Even the October 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, did not seem to faze Jordan much. In fact, even as GOP lawmakers and strategists criticized Trump or even withdrew endorsements, Jordan’s wife, Polly, traveled to North Carolina and jumped on a “women for Trump” bus tour, an act of loyalty that Trump continued to talk about long after the election put him in the White House.
Jordan always did have a penchant for troublemakers. Not only did he hang with the most conservative members of the House, but he had struck up a friendship with at least one lefty agitator, too — becoming so close with former congressman Dennis J. Kucinich that he invited the Ohio Democrat to his daughter’s wedding.
Perhaps it helped that Jordan’s district in northern Ohio was filled with constituents who were constantly furious at the established powers that be. As it pertained to Trump, if they seemed happy about a crude outsider shaking up politics, then who was he to argue?
“I don’t know if I’d always agree with the tone,” Jordan told CNN in August 2015, “but I think he understands that there’s a frustration out there, a real frustration out there with voters and that nothing is getting done in Washington.”
Left unsaid: Jordan had held elected office for 20 years, first in the state House starting in 1995, and in Congress starting in 2007. And for all his time in Congress, Jordan was known more for killing bills than passing them: thwarting efforts at immigration reform and threatening to shut down the government to cut spending.
“He was looking to build a coalition when I arrived,” said Republican Dennis A. Ross, a Florida congressman who arrived in 2010 and retired last year. “He was maybe more aggressively conservative than I, but he was a real leader, especially among the newer members.”
Eventually that coalition would become the House Freedom Caucus, a group of rabble-rousers hellbent on pulling the conversation as far right as possible. To Fox News viewers and the right-leaning base of the Republican Party, Jordan was quickly becoming something of a hero.
“Jordan was a terrorist,” Boehner told Politico in 2017 after the Freedom Caucus worked to send him into an early retirement. “A legislative terrorist.”
When Joe Walsh, a former tea party congressman from Illinois, came to Washington in 2011, he didn't see Jordan as a terrorist; he saw him as a kindred spirit. He was "an earnest, principled conservative," Walsh said, willing to buck his own party to do what's right.
“That feels like a long time ago,” said Walsh, now a Trump critic running against the president in the Republican primaries.
After Trump’s 2016 victory, Jordan signaled that he was preparing a run against then-Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who he thought was too accommodating to Democrats. Jordan and the Freedom Caucus, conservative officials said at the time, were waiting for a “smoke signal” from the new White House: If Trump wanted Ryan gone, they made sure he knew they would do his dirty work for him and take Ryan out.
The signal never came, and Jordan did something rare: He stood down from a fight.
For perhaps the first time in his congressional career, he was convinced that the leader of the Republican Party was someone to believe in.
Trump has signaled more than once that he believes in Jordan, too. “He’s a warrior for me!” Trump gushed over the congressman a year and half ago in a private meeting in the House basement, annoying several Republicans by showering praise on Jordan. After the congressman was embroiled last year in the periphery of a decades-old sexual misconduct controversy at Ohio State University, where some former wrestlers said Jordan knew — or should have known — about the sexually abusive conduct of team doctor Richard Strauss, Trump came to Jordan’s aid. Jordan — who was an assistant coach at the school from 1987 to 1995 — has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the abuse, and Trump told reporters last year that “I believe him 100 percent.”
Trump’s love of Jordan is about more than television hits. It’s also about loyalty and power for a man who demands it. When other Republicans were privately fretting about Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the Trump campaign, it was Jordan who pushed Ryan to impeach the official who appointed the special counsel in the first place: Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
This symbiotic relationship between Trump and Jordan, and the one between leadership and the Freedom Caucus, doesn’t compute for Walsh. Who was this guy working hand-in-hand with McCarthy?
“There’s no way the Jim Jordan I knew has anything in common with McCarthy,” he said. “He would call him a sellout, unprincipled, RINO Republican who doesn’t give a damn about Republican ideals or cutting spending.”
And what happened to Jordan’s view of government oversight?
“All I know is that if Barack Obama had a call like that when I was in Congress, it would have been Jim Jordan and me, screaming from the rafters about it,” Walsh said.
In recent weeks, Walsh has been thinking about a fundraising trip to New York that he and his wife took with Jordan in 2012.
“I remember riding in a cab with him, talking about how much this fight meant to him,” Walsh said. Jordan, Walsh said, is a much quieter, private person than you’d expect watching him perform on television, not the type to reveal much about himself. But over the course of that car ride, Jordan told Walsh that, believe it or not, they were important players in the country’s story, that they could be a part of history if they stuck to their guns.
“I’d love to have that conversation now,” Walsh said. “He’s certainly part of history, but . . . I don’t know what he’s fighting for anymore.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this article made an incorrect reference to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) instead of his brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo. This version has been updated.)