As Donald Trump attempted to cling onto power after losing reelection, Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania lobbied for the White House to install an environmental lawyer who was open to challenging the 2020 election results. Perry brokered an introduction between Trump and lawyer Jeffrey Clark, according to reports, and nudged Trump’s then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to call Clark in late December of 2020, according to text messages released by the House Jan. 6 committee.
Nearly two years later, Perry is lobbying for something else: the chairmanship of the House Committee on Homeland Security, should Republicans win back the House majority in November. The committee’s jurisdiction includes election security, and it could play a powerful role in probing or regulating voting machines and foreign election interference in the future.
Perry is one of nearly a dozen members of the House Freedom Caucus intimately involved in Trump’s attempt to delegitimize the election, according to news reports and evidence released by the Jan. 6 committee. The caucus has grown increasingly powerful in recent years and is expected to become even more so should Republicans take control the House. Freedom Caucus members could have significant influence over issues that are crucial to the functioning of democracy, including impeachment proceedings, the Justice Department and amendments to the Constitution.
Freedom Caucus members have advocated for such power in the House before to no avail. But next year may be different: The caucus has forged close ties to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, the leading contender for speaker of the House if Republicans take back the chamber, and its members are leading allies of Trump, who remains the standard-bearer of the Republican Party. And Perry is not the only Freedom Caucus member gunning for a chairmanship — Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) is in line to lead the House Judiciary Committee.
“John Boehner would’ve rather poked his eye out than made Jim Jordan a committee chairman,” said one former Republican lawmaker. “The current leadership has been much more inclined to welcome people with extreme views into the tent.”
This influence could significantly shape the next Congress, Republicans told Grid.
“They’re very influential, and I think they can help set the agenda if they make their case to leadership,” said Charlie Black, a longtime D.C. lobbyist and political strategist. “You’ve got a conservative leadership in a conservative caucus. So the Republican House agenda will be conservative in nature” if Republicans win.
This story is based on dozens of interviews with current and former lawmakers from both parties, aides, lobbyists and political operatives, as well as interviews and public statements by Freedom Caucus members and books authored by members themselves. Some of the people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the Freedom Caucus’ political influence.
Jordan, Meadows, Perry and the House Freedom Caucus did not respond to interview requests or specific questions from Grid for this story.
Examining what the Freedom Caucus wants doesn’t just offer a window into what may happen in Congress; it also reveals the vision of Washington’s future within the Trumpiest faction of the Republican Party — and how denial of the 2020 election results has become a movement that could influence policymaking.
Rather than hurt the Freedom Caucus, its ties to Jan. 6 have thus far showcased the caucus’ loyalty to Trump. Most Republicans in the House of Representatives had little active involvement in planning ways to challenge or alter the 2020 vote, but nearly a dozen Freedom Caucus members allegedly undertook a variety of roles that included meeting with Trump to hatch strategies for challenging the election, trying to find alternate electors to opt for Trump over Joe Biden, leading the charge to object to certifying the election and, in the case of Jordan, talking with the president the morning of the riot at the Capitol. The House Select Committee Investigating the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has subpoenaed four Freedom Caucus members, and Perry’s phone was seized by the FBI.
This fog surrounding the Freedom Caucus hasn’t diminished the group’s sway. Freedom Caucus members are currently a cause célèbre among the Republican base for their vociferous defense of Trump during the Jan. 6 investigations.
“It’s politically viable for now, but what happens when these people get the majority and proceed to be who they are? There’s going to be headaches, and there’s going to be serious consequences,” said David French, a conservative columnist who does not support Trump.
“If you want to create daylight, you need to create daylight,” French added. “If leadership doesn’t want to be defined by those folks, and have them taint the GOP writ large, then they need to take action.”
“Grind it to a halt”: How some Freedom Caucus members would rule Capitol Hill
Jordan — a Freedom Caucus elder statesman who one aide referred to as “the heart of the Freedom Caucus” — has a vision for a Republican House of Representatives in 2023.
“Grind it to a halt” when it comes to passing legislation, Jordan told the podcast “Hold the Line,” which encourages young Christians to become involved in politics, late last year. “This is how American politics works. You frame it up for 2024.”
Jordan is in line to become the next chair of one of the powerful bodies in Congress, the House Judiciary Committee, if Republicans control the House. The committee has broad jurisdiction: It led impeachment proceedings against Trump in the House, and oversees the Department of Justice and the FBI. The Judiciary Committee also has subpoena power, compelling people to testify or hand over materials, including phone records and emails, for review.
The Judiciary Committee is a plum post for Jordan because he relishes congressional oversight and would gain a pulpit to investigate agencies like the FBI that have become the source of recent Republican ire. A former wrestler, Jordan told “Hold the Line” that congressional investigations are “the closest thing that an old guy like me gets to a wresting match.”
Jordan suggested Republicans launch probes of the IRS, investigate wrongdoing in the Trump-Russia investigation, and get Dr. Anthony Fauci “under oath, under subpoena, facing the questions that I’d love to ask him” about the origins of covid-19. Other Freedom Caucus members like Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona have laid out similar wish lists for 2023; Biggs released an “America First Contract” that outlines steps Republicans can take while Biden is in the White House, including investigating the Biden family and “abuses of former Speaker Pelosi’s Jan. 6 Committee.”
Quick-witted and aggressive, Jordan has a knack for turning up the pressure on witnesses, which he prepares for by writing out questions longform on a yellow legal pad. Clips of Jordan at hearings make riveting material for Fox News, where he also appears in-person defending Trump.
For more than a decade, he’s been at the center of controversial and high-profile congressional probes, including the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi and the 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Democrats who worked on committees with Jordan lamented that he is so tenacious he sometimes doesn’t stand down on a point, even when evidence doesn’t bear it out. At the end of Congress’ two-year investigation into Benghazi, for example, Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy and other Republicans published a report detailing security failures that led to the attack but did not pin those failures to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Jordan did not follow suit. Instead, he and then-Rep. Mike Pompeo released a separate report alleging Clinton “misled the public” about the Benghazi attack and “failed to lead” by protecting Americans in Libya.
Jordan is a leading example of how Freedom Caucus members could expand their clout in the next Congress — and redouble partisan rancor in the House.
Perry has asked to chair the House Homeland Security Committee, on which he does not currently serve. Freedom Caucus members have asked for a seat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the nation’s security apparatus and ran the Trump-Russia investigation. Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, a Freedom Caucus member, also told CNN he plans to run for chairman of the House Republican conference.
The Freedom Caucus is also agitating to change the very group that assigns roles in the House of Representatives, the House Steering Committee. House leaders usually control the committee by placing allies in seats, but the Freedom Caucus released a memo this summer arguing for representation based on region, which would dilute leaders’ power.
The memo, reported on by the Washington Examiner, outlines several ways the Freedom Caucus would reform Congress to give rank-and-file members — including the Freedom Caucus — more day-to-day power. That includes cementing the so-called Hastert Rule that requires the majority of the ruling party supports a bill before leaders bring it to the floor.
“To fix the House of Representatives, we must first put Republicans’ own house in order,” the Freedom Caucus wrote.
From the tea party to Trump’s party
Trump’s surge to the nomination in 2016 shocked the country — but perhaps it shouldn’t have, when the history of the Freedom Caucus is taken into account. Many of the same voters who elected Freedom Caucus members as part of the 2010 tea party wave would later turn to Trump for the same reasons they had embraced the first wave of populist candidates, researchers and political operatives told Grid.
The Freedom Caucus keeps its inner workings unusually quiet for a congressional caucus. The caucus does not divulge its rules or policies, though one is well-known: If an 80 percent supermajority of the Freedom Caucus votes to oppose a bill, then the full caucus will throw its weight into voting no. This binding rule on voting is highly unusual for a caucus on Capitol Hill. In a Republican-led House, the Freedom Caucus’ block of votes is often enough to pass or sink a bill, giving the caucus outsized power. Within the caucus, however, there can be significant dissent, like recent debate over whether the caucus has become too political and should redouble its focus on policy.
The invite-only caucus reportedly counts between 30 and 40 lawmakers as members, but it doesn’t keep a public list. Only 22 House Republicans acknowledge membership in the Freedom Caucus on their websites and in public statements Grid identified. At least a half-dozen lawmakers routinely identified in news reports as Freedom Caucus members haven’t publicly claimed membership themselves. It’s also been rumored that one or more Republicans secretly belong to the caucus.
The Freedom Caucus is insular; its members tend to vote together and often sit together at House caucus meetings. It holds meetings at least weekly, usually after the first set of votes for the week. At first, those meetings were held in the basement of a Tex-Mex dive across the street from the House office buildings called Tortilla Coast, though the caucus has since upgraded to a nearby Capitol Hill town house rented by the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a nonprofit run by former tea party congressman Jim DeMint and Meadows, a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus.
The story of the Freedom Caucus began in 2010 when tea party politicians were first elected to Congress. Later, astute observers would argue this moment also indirectly marked the start of Trump’s rise in politics: The same voters who put Trump in office supported tea party candidates in the 2010s, including many who would go on to found the Freedom Caucus during a Republican retreat 2015.
“The tea party wave was driven in large part by fiscal issues, but combined with a deep populist streak. The tea party was the precursor to the Trump movement in many respects,” said Ken Spain, who directed communications for House Republicans’ campaign arm when the tea party surged in 2010. “There’s a reason why Trump later chose a Freedom Caucus member as his chief of staff. There’s not a lot of daylight between the two groups.”
Tea party lawmakers shared more in common with Trump than many recognized — in some cases, they literally spoke alike. A team of researchers led by University of Texas at San Antonio political science professor Bryan Gervais analyzed tea party behavior, including hundreds of tweets, and found lawmakers who identified with the tea party were more likely to use nationalistic rhetoric — like warnings about Muslims invading the country and echoes of replacement theory — than other Republican lawmakers. They were more likely to tweet in all capital letters or use multiple exclamation points, and exaggerate facts than their colleagues. They were also some of the first Republican lawmakers to share articles from hard-right site Breitbart News. In short, the online rhetoric of tea party politicians was characteristic of Trump’s speech.
“A lot of what we attribute to Trump, and the idea that Trump came out of nowhere and was a break from the Republican Party, that’s not true,” Gervais told Grid. “Starting in 2010, his style of politics, his style of rhetoric, was being paved by tea party Republicans.”
House conservatives, many of them elected during the tea party, announced the formation of the Freedom Caucus in January 2015. Founding members — which included future Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and future Trump chiefs of staff Mick Mulvaney and Meadows — aimed to recruit 30 people into the invite-only group. It was a calculated number: At the time, the Freedom Caucus needed 29 votes if it wanted to buck the will of House leadership.
The Freedom Caucus has repeatedly been underestimated in Washington. The formation of the group was ignored by major outlets like the New York Times and garnered only minor stories in Washington rags like Politico or the conservative Washington Examiner.
Within a year, the pugnacious members of the Freedom Caucus had forced House Speaker John Boehner to retire after he quarreled with the group.
Trump’s rise would turn the Freedom Caucus from a thorn in the side of House leaders to a leading faction of Republican Washington. Many Republicans — including some Freedom Caucus members — abhorred Trump as a candidate, and his unorthodox resistance to free trade and spending cuts. But the wives of two leading Freedom Caucus members, Jordan and Meadows, went out on a limb for the future president that was ultimately to great gain.
The same week as the “Access Hollywood” tape leak, Debbie Meadows and Polly Jordan boarded a red, white and blue “Women for Trump” tour bus to traverse Meadows’ home state of North Carolina. Trump was faltering among Republicans at the time: North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory even asked to have his campaign logo removed from the side of the “Women for Trump” bus after the tape was released, Meadows later wrote in his book. (Asked about the logo, McCrory told Grid, “I don’t recall that — but if my team said to do it, I’d have no problem with it.”)
The wives stumped for Trump at a roadside steakhouse and defended him to the media. “A lot of people have said a lot of bad things, and if the mic had been on any one of us, when we thought we were talking privately, we could be embarrassed,” Debbie Meadows told the Washington Times during one stop.
The “Access Hollywood” moment would prove pivotal. Trump liked to recall Jordan and Meadows’ support for years after the fact, Meadows wrote later in his book and a former Freedom Caucus member confirmed. And when McCrory launched a bid for Senate earlier this year, Meadows told him that the Trump team was still upset about McCrory saying Trump needed his mouth “washed out with soap” after the video leaked, McCrory recalled in a conversation with Grid. McCrory, who ran without Trump’s support, lost the primary.
Trump’s union with the Freedom Caucus was not always a given. From the beginning, they clashed on issues like trade, immigration and the budget. When the Freedom Caucus tanked the new president’s effort with House Speaker Paul Ryan to replace the Affordable Care Act, Trump lashed out on Twitter, saying it “will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast.”
But the Freedom Caucus quickly found ways to get through to the president — including appearances on cable television, which Trump watched frequently. Jordan and Meadows became ferocious on-air critics of the Mueller investigation into Russia’s potential election interference. Eventually Trump and Republicans would broker a deal on healthcare that had the Freedom Caucus’ support.
By the end of his first year in office, Freedom Caucus leaders were becoming regular guests at the White House. They were more likely than two other conservative groups, the Republican Study Committee and the Republican Main Street Partnership, to receive face-time with Trump during his first 200 days in office, according to a study by political science researchers at Lafayette College and the University of Southern California. And Trump’s electoral performance was more closely tied to Freedom Caucus members’ electoral performance than to that of members of the other conservative groups.
This dynamic doesn’t just benefit the Freedom Caucus, said former South Carolina representative Mark Sanford, a Freedom Caucus member who has since left the group and attempted to challenge Trump in the 2020 election.
“If nobody is doing your bidding, you’re not heard in the world of politics,” Sanford said. “To have a group associated with [Trump] and pretty much lock step in adherence to what he’s talking about gives him voice.”
“The bigger question is, what do they stand for, other than a power block?” Sanford added.
“He will cut a deal with the devil to advance his cause”
The Freedom Caucus currently has the most powerful relationships possible for a group of House Republicans: It is closely aligned with Trump while growing its relationship with McCarthy, who is far more inclined to listen to the Freedom Caucus than past House leaders.
In the days after Trump was elected, many Republicans hoped the bombastic new president would tame the Freedom Caucus. But predictions of the Freedom Caucus’ demise were short-lived: Rather than tamp down on the caucus’ power, Trump and the Freedom Caucus would soon reinforce one other. Freedom Caucus members served as Trump’s biggest defenders on Capitol Hill, while Trump utilized them as advisers and White House aides. Rather than fall in line, the Freedom Caucus would leverage its sway with Trump to gain a new foothold in the House Republican caucus.
Republicans notched their biggest Trump-era win, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, with the Freedom Caucus’ help. Former Freedom Caucus members and aides took jobs in the Trump White House: Freedom Caucus communications directors Alyssa Farah and Darin Miller; and Reps. Mulvaney, John Fleming and, later, Meadows were among the lawmakers and aides who joined the administration.
The pairing of Trump and the Freedom Caucus put House Republican leader McCarthy in a difficult position: trying to run the Republican conference while his most unruly wing had forged a closer relationship with the leader of the party than he had.
McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus had a rocky past. The House minority leader was a leading contender for speaker of the House in 2015 — but couldn’t net the Freedom Caucus’ support and eventually withdrew his candidacy. In the years since, McCarthy has slowly forged a bond: He speaks frequently with Jordan and goes to bat for lawmakers like Rep. Paul Gosar of Wyoming, who McCarthy defended after Gosar posted an animated video showing himself attacking Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York with a sword.
Last April, McCarthy traveled to the border with Freedom Caucus member Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) just three days after Greene appeared in a Georgia court to address her level of involvement in the Jan. 6 riots and testified under oath that there was “a tremendous amount of voter fraud” during the 2020 election and that Trump won the vote. McCarthy delivered a broadside on the Biden administration’s immigration failures as Greene stood directly behind him, wearing a military-motif green jacket.
The trip with Greene “speaks to McCarthy’s understanding of how the caucus works,” one senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill said. “He knows you can’t write off the far right.”
“He will cut a deal with the devil to advance his cause, and that’s what he’s done here,” the aide added.
Greene’s border trip shows how tea party members have gone from being pariahs to hallmarks of the Republican conference.
Though still regarded as radical — even dangerous — by more moderate members of her own party, Greene has not been isolated from the caucus by McCarthy. To the contrary, members like Greene have become increasingly important. Not only do they have access to Trump, but many also boast a close connection to the Republican base and media world, as well as a prolific ability to raise money. Greene alone raised $10 million for her reelection this fall, the majority of it from small-dollar donors — a sum that is far higher than most members of Congress but not too unusual for members of the House Freedom Caucus.
“McCarthy was never close to being part of the House Freedom Caucus, but I think because he has a very good political mind he saw that — at least on the Republican side of the aisle — they were going in Trump’s direction, and Trump was allied with the Freedom Caucus,” a former Freedom Caucus member told Grid. “People like Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan and Ron DeSantis who would not have been able to move toward leadership positions [before Trump] were all of a sudden seeing doors open.”
The dynamic today represents a remarkable reversal. For years, House leaders cloistered tea party members on the least desirable committees in Congress in order to limit their influence and keep them out of the spotlight. In 2012, several tea partyers were kicked off their committees after refusing to vote with the rest of their caucus. In 2015, Meadows had ascended to chairmanship of a subcommittee on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform only to be booted off his spot by the committee’s chairman after Meadows crossed the speaker.
Republicans on Capitol Hill pointed to two pivotal moments that changed the Freedom Caucus’ fate. The first shift took place when Trump became president. The second shift was a choice made in 2019 by McCarthy to put Jim Jordan on the House Intelligence Committee.
The Intelligence Committee is one of the most sought-after posts in the House. Regularly, dozens of lawmakers compete for seats — and in the past, Freedom Caucus members were not appointed to join. But Jordan, more than the committee’s Republican leader Devin Nunes of California, had mounted an impressive defense of Trump in the Trump impeachment proceedings.
“I will never forget when I heard he was appointing Jordan to the Intelligence Committee. It was for serious folks only, serious stuff,” a former GOP House aide said. “You only put people on that committee who you thought were of high integrity, character, honesty, trust and also team players. And Jim Jordan was, clearly, not a team player.”
The ever-expanding Freedom Caucus
If Republicans win back the House in November, it’s likely a new influx of Freedom Caucus members, and people who think like them, will arrive on Capitol Hill, fueling Trump’s agenda and redoubling baseless cries that the 2020 election was illegitimate.
Challengers to House incumbents who received Trump’s endorsement won two-thirds of their primaries this year, according to NPR, and 89 percent of open seats. And a host of primary winners have said there was fraud in the 2020 election. Sandy Smith, a Republican candidate in North Carolina, said on Twitter she attended the rally on Jan. 6. Ohio Republican J.R. Majewski attended too, according to a review of since-deleted tweets by CNN. Some candidates backed by Trump have who advanced through their primaries have also espoused the QAnon conspiracy theory, a Grid analysis found.
Even if leaders like McCarthy try to keep the right wing at bay in the House, the tenor of the Republican caucus will likely change. And if Republicans hold a narrow majority of seats, Freedom Caucus lawmakers will be yet more capable of forcing their party to the right.
“We’re going to see a wave of extremism happen,” said Craig Holman, ethics lobbyist for the good government group Public Citizen. “If we see a Republican majority established in the House, it’s going to be a very, very conservative — if not right-wing — majority.”
The Freedom Caucus is meanwhile working to expand its reach again — this time into state legislatures.
The State Freedom Caucus Network launched last year, with support from current and former Freedom Caucus lawmakers. The network is currently being run by Andrew Roth, who spent nearly two decades at the powerful conservative Club for Growth. The current executive director of the Freedom Caucus, Justin Ouimette, has also announced plans to leave Capitol Hill and join the State Freedom Caucus Network.
The State Freedom Caucus Network is an affiliate of the Conservative Partnership Institute, the nonprofit where the national Freedom Caucus holds its meetings that also employs Trump supporters like Meadows and former lawyer Cleta Mitchell. Lawmakers in the states will focus on issues including “election integrity” and “vaccine mandates,” according to a news release from CPI.
As the Freedom Caucus expands in the House and elsewhere, other factions of the Republican conference are shrinking. Several moderates who supported impeaching Trump after Jan. 6 have either retired or been defeated in primaries.
“I don’t think they’re looking at what they’ve lost, and what they’ve lost is significant,” the former Republican lawmaker told Grid, rattling off a string of moderates who lost their primary races this year.
There’s “political safety” in accommodating the base, but it comes at a significant cost, the lawmaker said: “You lose these more rational and pragmatic members — and you get a more extreme Republican conference.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.