President Donald Trump didn’t have to issue his threat seriously — “I’m gonna come after you,” he said jokingly to a ringleader of House GOP hardliners opposing his health care bill — to be taken seriously by the 200 Republicans gathered in the Capitol basement.
For a president with a penchant for vengeance – who named “an eye for an eye” as his favorite biblical passage, who banned media outlets from campaign events when he didn’t approve of their coverage, who ousted a GOP state chairman after the election whom he viewed as disloyal, who reminded a GOP governor just last week who didn’t endorse him that “I never forget” – the roll call vote on the Republican health care plan, expected Thursday, will be the first accounting of who’s with him and who’s against him on Capitol Hill.
Those close to Trump describe his largely binary world view: you’re either on Team Trump or against Team Trump. “Get even with people,” Trump outlined his philosophy in a 2011 speech. “If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”
The president may be ideologically flexible, even to the point of disinterest, on the particulars of the health care legislation. But Trump’s been clear and consistent about one message: He wants it done.
“I honestly think many of you will lose your seats in 2018 if you don’t get this done,” Trump warned House Republicans on Tuesday.
One senior administration official said that what the president was suggesting was “not revenge” – just simply political “reality.” But the combination of Trump’s history of score-settling, his offhand remark at Tuesday’s conference and the significance of the looming vote has created an undercurrent of fear of retribution in the House.
“There probably should be,” Rep. James Comer, who flew on Air Force One with Trump this week, said he’ll back the bill despite lingering concerns about how it will affect the large number of expanded Medicaid recipients he represents, because his constituents clearly want him to side with Trump. “In the members’ districts that are still on the fence or a no, he won their districts by huge margins. They’re mainly in the southern states. They’re in Republican, very pro-Trump districts. I think they’re going to think long and hard about ‘Do I want to vote against the president?’”
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., supports the bill but said of his undecided colleagues, “It’s something I would definitely factor in if I were in their shoes.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer wouldn’t rule out Tuesday that Trump could seek to take out wayward Republicans in 2018 primaries. “Let’s get through the vote,” Spicer said, adding, “I’m not going to focus on the negative as much as the positive today.”
Both the president and vice president held recent rallies in Kentucky, the home state of Sen. Rand Paul, who has slammed the health bill as “Obamacare lite.” For now, Trump is playing nice. “I happen to like, a lot, Sen. Rand Paul. I do. I do. I like him. Good. He’s a good guy. And I look forward to working with him so that we can get this bill passed in some form,” Trump said Monday night in Louisville.
A House leadership aide said the two Kentucky trips have sent a loud enough message to bring some wavering GOP lawmakers off the fence and into the fold. A top Republican strategist with close ties to the leadership called fear of presidential payback a powerful “weapon in the armament” of Speaker Paul Ryan as he wrangles votes.
“I think it looms over these members and I don’t think any one of them wants to feel the horns,” the strategist said.
They’ve already seen what happens when Trump is crossed.
On the campaign, Trump’s first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski dubbed Trump a great “counter-puncher.” Trump rarely suffered a slight, or even a perceived slight, that he didn’t want to take a swing at.
He read Sen. Lindsey Graham’s personal cell phone number aloud on national television to get back at him, sued an estranged former campaign adviser for $10 million and threatened to sue the numerous women who accused him of groping them. He fought publicly with a Gold Star family who had lost their son in Iraq and a former Miss Universe whom he once called fat.
After the Access Hollywood tape came out last October in which Trump bragged of grabbing women unwantedly, one Republican operative who spoke with him at the time said Trump lit into the those Republicans who were abandoning him in an explicative-laden tirade about how he was going to “f—“ Republican after Republican who did so.
Bygones are simply not his style. Trump still ribs Vice President Mike Pence in public for first endorsing his primary opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz. He has warned he would personally fund a super PAC against Ohio Gov. John Kasich if he ever runs for office again after Kasich refused to endorse him, and Trump personally made phone calls to state party committee members after the election to oust Kasich’s hand-picked state party chairman, an unusually micro level of involvement for a president-elect.
Just last week, in Detroit, he pointed out to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder that he hadn’t endorsed him.
Trump’s penchant for payback is not new. In 1992, after he went through bankruptcy, Trump told Charlie Rose about how he relished the chance to exact revenge on those who failed to come to his aid in tough times.
“I would have wiped the floor with the guys that weren’t loyal. Which I will now do. Which is great, you know, I love getting even with people,” Trump said, adding with a smirk, “You don’t believe in ‘the eye for the eye’?
Last Friday, Trump had some members of the conservative Republican Study Committee over to the White House and asked them, one by one, to pledge support for the bill. “Every single person in this room is now a yes,” he bragged afterward.
Among those who offered their backing was freshman GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana. He said fear of retribution wasn’t a factor for him. “Perhaps I’m an anomaly,” he said, “I’m not concerned about being tweeted at or any of the things that some of my colleagues might be concerned about.”
Trump has lashed out after setbacks since taking office — from judges’ rulings against his immigration executive order to stories about West Wing infighting — but a failure of his health bill on the floor would be the most serious yet.
At the House GOP conference meeting on Tuesday, Trump asked Rep. Mark Meadows, an early endorser who’s also the head of the House Freedom Caucus group that’s led the charge against the health bill, to stand. That’s when he issued his half-joking threat and predicted, in the end, that Meadows would “get on board.”
Meadows exited to a hallway where he told reporters he was still a no vote — for now.
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