Was it a joke or a threat?
President Donald Trump singled out U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina during a closed-door meeting Tuesday. Meadows is the conservative House Freedom Caucus chairman who’s leading the opposition to the Republican-crafted Obamacare repeal and replace plan, due for a tense House vote Thursday.
The leader of the free world asked Meadows to stand before his fellow House Republicans.
“Oh, Mark, I’m gonna come after you big time,” Trump said, noting Meadows’ opposition to the bill that Trump and House leaders badly want to pass.
Oh, Mark, I’m gonna come after you big time.
President Donald Trump
“I hope Mark will be with us in the end,” Trump added, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.
Later, Meadows shrugged the encounter off as playfulness by an unconventional president who he deeply respects, even if Meadows bucks the White House and House Speaker Paul Ryan and votes against the bill.
Trump’s jest – or jab – could put Meadows in a strong position among diehard conservatives. He stood up to Trump, and should the president fail to satisfy Freedom Caucus loyalists, Meadows emerges as a strong leader.
There’s political risk, too, if Trump maintains and builds his popularity with conservatives and Meadows is seen as an outlier.
White House officials insisted Tuesday that Trump was joking.
“In terms of calling me out, the president and I have a good relationship, so I don’t see anything that is of great concern from that standpoint,” Meadows said Tuesday afternoon. “Certainly, I want to get to ‘yes.’ I’m working to get to ‘yes,’ and looking forward to being able to lower health care premiums.”
That said, Meadows added that “I’m no closer to ‘yes’ than I was yesterday because we haven’t made any changes.”
Republican leaders did make changes to the bill Monday night, but the changes haven’t satisfied most of the Freedom Caucus.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump “had some fun” at Meadows’ expense Tuesday morning.
“And, I think he continued to express hope that Congressman Meadows…would continue to see the efforts that have been made to make this (bill) better…and address a lot of concerns out there,” Spicer said. “But, he made it very clear that he was...having fun with him. The president is committed to making sure that this gets passed.”
At the meeting, Trump first recognized several House Republicans opposed to the bill but have since been persuaded to support it after securing amendments that alleviate their concerns about the legislation.
Trump gave a shout-out to Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, who initially opposed the bill – a grave threat to any piece of legislation given the RSC’s nearly 170 members. Walker is now a solid supporter.
Then, Trump asked Meadows to stand, according to U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., who attended the meeting.
Trump told Meadows “I’m counting on you to vote for the bill,” Hudson recalled.
Meadows stood up, waved, and commented that he enjoyed a weekend visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat, offering no discussion about his continued opposition to the bill.
“Everyone in the room kinda groaned,” Hudson said in an interview with McClatchy afterward.
You shouldn’t single anybody out. They are not up here to represent a president or an administration. They’re up here to represent the people of their district.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
Trump warned House Republicans of the election consequences if the GOP bill fails and specifically told Meadows “I’m gonna come after you big time,” according to Hudson.
The exchange appeared to be in “jest,” said Hudson, a GOP health care bill supporter who described Trump’s attitude Tuesday as warm and engaging.
Trump’s talk to lawmakers was “impressive,” Hudson said, “It really was a ‘Tour de Force.’”
Not all lawmakers thought so.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., left the meeting before Trump’s encounter with Meadows, but said he had heard enough from the president to leave unimpressed.
“I was pretty amazed with the fact that he said very little about the health care: ‘You’ve got to vote for it, we need it, you need it,’ this and that. That was about it,” Jones said. “Everything else was just how much he’s done since he’s been president. Kind of strange in a way, kind of like ‘How Great Thou Art.’”
Jones, who opposes the GOP health care bill, was taken aback when colleagues told him about Trump’s encounter with Meadows.
“I was raised in the South. I’ve learned to say ‘thank you, no thank you, yes, please,’ and all these things. To me, you shouldn’t single anybody out,” Jones said. “They are not up here to represent a president or an administration. They’re up here to represent the people of their district.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., said the president’s exchange with Meadows seemed to be a statement of political reality more than a personal attack.
If House Republicans can’t accomplish their campaign vow to repeal and replace Obamacare, they’ll likely pay a price at the polls in 2018.
“Absolutely,” said Pittenger, who supports the bill. “We made a promise to the American people. Repeal and replace.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this story.