Rep. Justin Amash’s declaration that President Trump has engaged in “impeachable conduct” has put his fellow Republicans in a bind: stuck between an angry president who often seeks to punish his critics and their reluctance to penalize one of their own.
Trump privately has vented to associates about the Michigan lawmaker, who on Saturday became the first congressional Republican to raise the possibility of impeachment, citing the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. The president dismissed Amash on Monday, telling reporters, “He’s been a loser for a long time.” The comments came hours after a GOP candidate announced the first of what could be multiple primary challenges to the congressman.
But on Capitol Hill, few Republicans are eager to punish the libertarian, who had a long history of bucking GOP leaders even before Trump was elected. Top Republican lawmakers and aides said Monday that kicking Amash out of the GOP conference or off his committee would only draw more attention to his apostasy. Instead, they have focused on isolating Amash and portraying him as an outlier. The House Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of which Amash is a member, also took a position Monday night “strongly disagreeing” with Amash’s comments.
“I’ve read the report. I’ve come to a different conclusion than Justin has,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill. “But I know that he expresses the views that he holds sincerely, and we’re in a democratic republic where’s he’s been elected by his district to present his views. He ought to be able to present them.”
Amash continued presenting those views Monday, issuing a fresh series of tweets arguing that his critics are “resting their argument on several falsehoods.”
Amash, 39, has long been uniquely comfortable breaking with his party, citing his libertarian principles in regularly opposing GOP leaders on votes ranging from spending bills to the routine approval of the daily House journal. His position on Trump’s impeachment, however, stands to put his colleagues on the spot regarding Mueller’s identification of 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice by Trump and could give oxygen to Democratic attacks on the president.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a close Amash friend and ideological fellow traveler, said Monday that he was blindsided by the Saturday tweets and was “180 degrees diametrically opposed” to Amash’s conclusions while defending his right to share them.
“He’s taken thousands of principled votes in his career and hundreds of votes that could have cost any member of Congress their election, and he has survived every one of those votes,” Massie said. “So he’s not in the habit of wondering what the political fallout will be of an opinion or a vote that he takes.”
He added, “When you quote me, just make sure people understand I disagree.”
Amash’s new position on impeachment undeniably puts his reelection in jeopardy. Besides the Sunday campaign announcement from state Rep. Jim Lower, who billed himself as “a Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Jobs, Pro-2nd Amendment, Pro-Family Values Republican,” other signs of a backlash quickly emerged.
The leader of the Club for Growth — a conservative group that has staunchly backed Amash since his first congressional run in 2010, and whose spending helped him overcome a 2014 primary challenge — publicly criticized his impeachment remarks Monday, calling him “absolutely wrong on the standard for impeachment.”
“In spite of his excellent voting record on economic issues, we completely disagree with him on this,” President David M. McIntosh said in a statement.
A spokesman declined to comment on whether the group would support Amash should he seek reelection.
Over the weekend, the pro-Trump One America News Network highlighted a Democratic opponent’s past attacks on the congressman’s family’s business — a tool company with manufacturing interests in China — to suggest that Amash’s impeachment stance was a self-interested attack motivated by Trump’s trade policy.
But on Capitol Hill, few would accuse Amash of rank self-dealing. He has won grudging respect from both Republicans and Democrats for his remarkable consistency in service of his libertarian views, which often put him on the losing end of lopsided bipartisan votes.
Even if Republicans were to consider action against Amash, their options would be limited.
The congressman, according to Massie and other Republicans, has largely stopped attending the weekly House Republican conference meetings. And prior battles with GOP leaders have left him with only a single committee assignment, to the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Meanwhile, the House Liberty Caucus, a group Amash has chaired since 2013, has largely gone dormant. Its only news release this year notes its support for a Democratic resolution to overturn Trump’s border emergency declaration.
But several GOP officials said leaders are wary of overreacting to Amash and raising his profile. Multiple officials pointed to Amash’s decision not to rule out a presidential run on the Libertarian Party ticket.
“Maybe he wants some type of exit strategy,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a Fox News interview Sunday in which he lashed out at Amash. “This is exactly what you would expect from Justin. He never supported the president, and I think he’s just looking for attention.”
Senior GOP officials said party leaders might quietly bless another candidate to run against Amash — or at the very least, stand aside while Trump backs someone else. Federal campaign finance records indicate that Amash has $133,454 in his political account, hardly an overwhelming figure for a four-term incumbent.
“There’s probably nothing more intimidating than the sounds of Air Force One when it lands in Grand Rapids, and I think that if Justin is running again, that’s also the sound of Amash’s career coming to an end — at least as a House member,” said a senior GOP official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe internal discussions.
Republicans found themselves in a similar situation with former congressman Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican who frequently criticized Trump. The president supported a primary challenge to Sanford, even as the lawmaker continued to huddle with some of Trump’s closest congressional allies as a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Trump won the primary battle, as Republicans in the Palmetto State turned to Trump-aligned candidate Katie Arrington, but she lost the House seat to Democrat Joe Cunningham. Republicans were outraged when Trump showed up on the Hill a few weeks later and bragged about defeating Sanford in a private meeting, calling him a “nasty guy.” Some in the crowd of GOP lawmakers, in fact, booed Trump.
Amash’s situation is perhaps most sensitive for leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, who have become Trump’s most ardent defenders on Capitol Hill. Amash was one of the founding members of the conservative group, which drove out then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and has frequently derailed GOP bills it finds too accommodating, while wading into thorny areas like government surveillance and presidential warmaking authority.
As the Freedom Caucus became cozier with Trump, however, Amash made fewer appearances at its weekly meetings, according to those familiar with the group. Still, he maintains friendly relations with its members and often sits with them in their usual spot just off the center aisle on the House floor. It remains to be seen how much his impeachment stance will strain those ties, though group founder Jim Jordan has donated to his campaign.
“I’ve read the Mueller report twice, and thousands of pages of other documents, as well, and I can say that Justin Amash’s conclusions are poorly informed and fatally flawed and don’t represent the views of any of the Freedom Caucus members that I’m aware of,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
The group on Monday night voted to disagree with Amash’s position, though they did not kick him out of the group.
Gaetz, a fellow conservative who said he’s still friends with Amash and still intends to sit by him at House votes, said he would be opposed to other Republicans enacting revenge on him: “I’m not going to campaign against Justin.”
Erica Werner and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.