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Trump Goes Full Freedom Caucus

The election-year installment of Mark Meadows as chief of staff is evocative of George H.W. Bush’s appointment of Jim Baker.

Freedom Caucus chairman Congressman Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, seen here at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

WASHINGTON– “Mark Meadows understands the president as well as anyone,” Congressman Matt Gaetz told me Friday night. “He is a brilliant strategist and will ensure success.”

The sentiment is classic Gaetz, redolent of other statements from perhaps the president’s fiercest defender on Capitol Hill. Before Friday, that mantle may have been the province of Mark Meadows, the ex-House Freedom Caucus chair. In a spring shakeup, Meadows was elevated to the White House Friday night as President Donald J. Trump’s fourth chief of staff.

Trump’s swapped South Carolina for North Carolina. Meadows’ ascension means the end for Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s “acting” chief of staff for over a year. Mulvaney, in his role, was a friend of foreign policy restraint, but recent, tone-deaf comments on immigration were likely the coup de grace in a relationship that was effective but not affectionate. 

In the Trump White House, if the relationship breaks down, judgement night can never bend.

For Trump, chief of staff, like national security advisor, has been a role of considerable upheaval. In Meadows, the president has gone with a loyalist. Ironic for a Republican politician who slashed at market orthodoxy on the Right, Trump has always gotten on with the libertarian House Freedom Caucus like a house on fire. 

Members of this Hill group represent blood-red Republican districts in rural and exurban America, so determining if the relationship with the president is authentically amorous or sinisterly self-interested is interesting, but ultimately inconsequential. The relationship with the White House was there from the beginning. Caucus leadership was on the speedial of then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and the contingent served as a foil to frenemy House Speaker Paul Ryan. Figures friendly to its membership, such as Don McGahn, the White House counsel, dotted the ranks of the admin. 

By tapping Meadows, Trump and the Freedom Caucus are further twinned. Early policy picadillos — the Caucus was coy in its support of the administration’s eventually-doomed healthcare reform efforts — are ancient history. Apostates, like outgoing Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, have been cut from the body. It’s slash and burn politics at its finest. And in Meadows, the Caucus sends Trump a favorite son.

On foreign policy, the portfolio over which a president enjoys greatest autonomy, Meadows is a responsible substitute for Mulvaney. Meadows, in September, Meadows joined Gaetz, Rep. Ro Khanna and others in a broad rebuff of the administration’s misguided Yemen policy. 

Trump, himself, is consistently out of step with his own apparatchiks, especially on foreign policy. It’s the stuff of katzenjammer, but Meadows, Gaetz and others doubtless owe this reality to their continued high standing. 

Trump is gathering allies ahead of November, in a likely contest against Joe Biden that will be far different than the clash against Bernie Sanders being prepared for only a week ago. By tapping Meadows, Trump steals a page from President George H.W. Bush, who installed Jim Baker, previously secretary of state, as his principal political lieutenant. Though he repeats Bush’s strategy, Trump assuredly hopes to avoid the fate of the last incumbent president to lose re-election.

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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