Meet the most powerful man in the House

Tara Golshan
Meet the most powerful man in the House
Meet the most powerful man in the House

On a July afternoon in the Capitol Building, in the course of giving his play-by-play of the Senate's health care debate, Mark Meadows showed me the call log on his iPhone.

The first name was Steve Bannon, followed by Reince Priebus — both of whom would resign from the White House in the coming weeks but who were, at the time, top aides to President Trump. Then, in all caps, came a code name that was hard to miss: VIP POTUS.

Meadows tried to play off the names as unusual, a flurry of high-profile calls all flowing from the Senate's failed health care push. But in the scheme of Washington today, they were entirely normal. Meadows, a third-term Republican representative from rural North Carolina who doesn't hold any top committee positions and is far from House leadership, has become key to congressional business — a man who, his staff confirms, talks to Trump nearly every day and isn't too shy about that.

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"I spoke with the president about three or four days ago," Meadows said back home in North Carolina during August recess to a group of about 30 constituents, knowing his relationship with Trump would please the crowd. "He says, well, you tell the people of North Carolina that I love them and I appreciate them."

Since arriving in Washington in 2013, Meadows has been central to the biggest stories in Congress. Eight months into his freshman term, he was named an architect of the 2013 government shutdown. Two years later he moved to oust House Speaker John Boehner from his seat, a catalyst to Boehner's retirement and House Speaker Paul Ryan's political ascension.

On my first day of covering congressional Republicans — the day Ryan dropped the House's Obamacare repeal bill — Meadows had already positioned himself as an essential player in negotiations. The chair of the Freedom Caucus, a cohort of roughly 40 men who make up the House's most conservative faction, Meadows wields enough votes to stop any Republican-led legislation in its tracks. And he has a direct line to the president if things don't go his way — leverage points he used to make an unpopular health care bill move further to the right in the House.

The reality of today's Congress is that in the House of Representatives, the Freedom Caucus is in control of the Republican agenda — with Meadows at the helm. He leads a body that made its mark as an opposition force from within. But tasked with governing, Meadows has to decide whether his conservative principles supersede getting things done. He may have paved the way for Ryan's speakership, but it's Meadows who stands in the way of every major Republican policy push.

The closest I got to him acknowledging this power was in the weeks after the health care bill's failure. "Conservative agendas will need members of the Freedom Caucus on board," he told me — a subtle nod to this new era of Republican rule.

A man tailor-made for Trump

When he's in a good mood, Meadows likes to talk — and joke around. He acts like he's saying more than he should. He'll tell you about his conversations with Trump and his visits to the White House. He'll let you follow him around the Capitol building. When he's anxious — when Trump is calling him angry, when he knows he's holding up the Republican agenda — the rosiness in his face fades, his smile subsides, and his brow furrows.

On a rainy Monday morning in a well-lit restaurant in Burnsville, North Carolina, it was the former. Meadows, in his suit and tie, had just come back from Washington. A crowd of elderly supporters, local political figures, and a table of school-age kids, all looked at him in awe. Not only are they fervent Meadows supporters — they are even more passionate Trump supporters.

"Do they have any idea how angry and frustrated the people of this country are about how Trump is being treated?" Dick, an elderly man in a veteran's baseball cap, asked Meadows of his Republican colleagues in Congress.

If you constructed a Trump district in a laboratory, the result would likely mirror Meadows's home in western North Carolina. Tucked between the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, it's rural and overwhelmingly white. There's a church at almost every corner — "God's country," as Meadows calls it.

His district is the "Trump country" archetype that was endlessly profiled during the campaign. Abandoned warehouses remain the last vestiges of a manufacturing era unlikely to return; it's why the "again" in "Make America Great Again" resonates so deeply with the most disadvantaged of Meadows's constituents.

"We feel forgotten — we have a chip on our shoulders in that regard," North Carolina state Rep. Josh Dobson said of the region.

Almost everyone I spoke to in Meadows's district talked about those buildings — about the jobs they used to hold. They were still lamenting industries that left in the 1980s: furniture manufacturing, textiles — one plant after another shipped overseas, they'd say.

But among the swaths of working-class communities are wealthy pockets of retired Floridians and Georgians who flit between their country club golf courses and places of worship — where Meadows, until recently, lived. Like the rest of the country, there is a divide between the poor and the wealthy. Meadows now counts himself among the latter.

Meadows says he arrived in North Carolina from Florida in the 1980s with little to his name. He started a sandwich shop with his wife, Debbie. She was the waitress, and he made the subs.

Meadows made his riches off a lucrative real estate development business in North Carolina, selling land to wealthy retirees. "He never really got involved in politics per se," a district staffer said of Meadows's political origins. "He was about making money."

Before getting into national politics, Meadows was an active GOP donor and county GOP chair.He says his call to government was a sign from God — one assisted by a round of Republican redistricting that turned western North Carolina into one of the state's most conservative districts. In his early introductory campaign videos, his policy platform was unapologetically pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage. He said he wanted to fend off liberal judges from allowing Sharia law to creep into the United States Constitution and, above all, bring a "sound business approach to Washington, DC." He stands for "life, liberty, and lower taxes," he said — the Tea Party's candidate.

No one would think of Meadows as a political outsider now. He navigates between rural working-class communities in his district and national Republican Party fundraisers with ease. He fit in with the big donors at the Koch organization's semiannual conference this summer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, often pausing on the lakeside path at the luxury Broadmoor resort to chat tax or health care policy with national political reporters.

It's what makes an otherwise soft-spoken and reverent Meadows a perfect fit for Trump. His schmoozing shucks-and-aw obeisance to the president is only rivaled by his desire to win. In his private life it was to make money, and in his public one to implement the ultra-conservative agenda his constituents voted him, and Trump, to push.

To the Freedom Caucus, "no" goes a long way

Meadows likes to say the Freedom Caucus has two rules: Members have to be willing to vote with Republican leadership, and against it. They're known for the latter — "their greatest power is saying no," said Matt Green, a politics professor with Catholic University of America who studies political leverage in the House.

It's a power that comes in handy in an era of extreme partisanship, where Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to find bipartisan consensus and Republicans, with a slim majority in both chambers, need overwhelming party consensus to get anything done.

"Congressional politics is a numbers game," Green said. "The only number that matters here is 218 — everything else is BS. "

Meadows, a self-proclaimed "numbers guy," knows this math well. On party-line votes, the House can only lose roughly two dozen members — the Freedom Caucus consists of upward of 40.

The Freedom Caucus was formed in January 2015 as a principled conservative outgrowth of the Republican Study Committee — a much larger caucus of 172 conservative House members.

By June 2015, the group had staged an act of rebellion against Republican leadership — 34 of them voted against giving then-President Barack Obama more authority to negotiate a Pacific trade deal — that put Meadows's congressional standing on the line. As punishment, Meadows was stripped of his subcommittee chairmanship in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"In 20 years, it was the second-largest of number of us that had ever voted against a rule," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) then-chair of the Freedom Caucus, said. "Leadership decided they were going to go after someone, and they picked Mark."

Meadows was eventually reinstated, but the move was a clear signal from Republican leadership that the Freedom Caucus was considered an adversarial group. A lot has changed since. Republicans sit in the White House, and Meadows has taken over the Freedom Caucus.

"Jim's a little more combative and Mark is a little more strategic," Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) said of the difference within the group. It's clear the Freedom Caucus — and Meadows — considers the Trump presidency a unique opportunity to flex its muscle. Congressional GOP leadership doesn't hold all the power anymore. Ryan can't punish the Freedom Caucus or run to Democrats on major agenda items like his predecessor John Boehner could.

Meadows has an opportunity to make his mark on legislation the GOP passes — if his ideas aren't too radical to kill it first.

"The health care process was an interesting example of the Freedom Caucus not just saying 'no'; they are saying 'no and,'" Green said. It's what makes Meadows the natural leader of the Freedom Caucus under the Trump administration.

James Wallner, a fellow at the conservative R Street Institute think tank and former executive director of the Senate Steering Committee, explains it as having both the "inside game" and "outside game." Meadows has allies in conservative advocacy groups, and can rile up his anti-establishment base on the outside as well as work his legislative leverage on the inside.

But for a group so adamant on using their leverage to deliver more conservative results, they haven't seen much success.

"You could make the argument that we have had less conservative pieces of legislation because of the Freedom Caucus," said Brian Walsh, a partner at the public affairs firm Rokk Solutions and former National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director.

Meadows has incentive to back Trump — not necessarily Republican leadership

Among the 750,000 residents he represents, Meadows won by 28 percentage points in 2016. All 16 counties in the district went for Trump.

Meadows himself initially backed the other outsider candidate in the race, Ted Cruz, in the 2016 primary. But less than a month before Election Day, Meadows was on Trump's private plane, flying to rallies in North Carolina, making the Republican nominee's closing argument.

Meadows and his deputy chief of staff, Wayne King, sat alongside Trump's advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, as well as communications strategists Dan Scavino and Hope Hicks. Trump's entourage wasn't in the conversation — it was just Meadows and Trump. In that moment, they understood each other, King said.

At his Burnsville event, before the latest White House shake-up, Meadows described what was likely the infamous Bannon whiteboard to a room full of supporters in the district. "It's where he made [the campaign promise] and when he made it — he's got it all written down," Meadows said. "Just rows and rows. He's going one by one and checking them off."

The room cooed in wonderment. These Americans both cherished stories of their president, Donald Trump, in the hallowed halls of government and reveled in blistering accounts of a broken, out-of-touch Washington.

It's the kind of dynamic that has allowed Meadows to sit at an extreme of his party: He comes from a safe conservative district, with a fondness for tactics that force Republicans to move to the right.

That's how he explains his oppositional perspective at the outset of arriving in Congress. "I assumed the conservatives would be a major part of the Republican Party," he said of when he first got to Washington. "Perhaps it's my definition of conservative versus someone else's definition. The difference is when we say it, we mean it."

At times, this strategy has put Meadows's romance with Trump at risk.

At the height of the House's health care fight in March, Meadows put The Art of the Deal into action. Trump had forced Meadows into a binary choice: back the House's health care bill that Meadows said left too much of Obamacare in place, or shun it and allow the Affordable Care Act to reign — and Meadows walked away. The moment raised him to 2017 stardom, even making the long list of people Trump has angrily tweeted about.

@realDonaldTrump: If @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform.

But when conservatives extracted key concessions from Trump to pass the House health bill in May, Meadows was standing beside the president in the Rose Garden, both smiling, again. Already Meadows has outlined another Rube Goldberg-like legislative maneuver — a blueprint for welfare reform and tax reform that will almost certainly embroil him in a public political battle with Republican leadership over the future of the party's agenda.

Meadows's group of House archconservatives — the Freedom Caucus — will be blamed for stalling the Republican agenda, and Meadows is known to stand firm until he gets his way.

These tactics have earned him a number of enemies in Washington.

He refuses to talk about Boehner, with whom he had a well-documented feud. Meadows filed a motion to remove Boehner in 2015 — a decision that wasn't backed by his own Freedom Caucus allies at the time. It's all in the past, he says.

"I have a lot of conservative colleagues that perhaps see our tactics as really too aggressive to when it comes to accomplishing what is important," Meadows said in an attempt to defend his actions. He works diligently to maintain the persona of a bashful Southerner.

"I hate for me to be the center of anything," he tells me. "It's against my grain. I'd love to be a little legislator that's behind the scenes doing policy."

But Meadows's colleagues in the House openly joke that for a man who insists on being in the background, he is always talking with the press to push his ideas. The day after the Senate's health care vote went down in flames, one Republican Congress member walked passed him and audibly muttered, "Phony," as Meadows talked to the TV cameras.

"I believe the Freedom Caucus has been Nancy Pelosi's greatest asset," Walsh, the Republican strategist, said. "The ironic thing is, the president is far less conservative [than the Freedom Caucus] on fiscal issues."

Those close Washington politics know the shtick: Meadows both holds his cards close and plays the same hand each time, forcing his way to the table and walking away when he doesn't get what he wants.

Meadows's district is a breeding ground for Trump's version of populism

What he wants may not always reflect what many of his constituents say they need. In Meadows's district, roughly 98,837 (13 percent) of his constituents were on Medicaid in 2015 — a program from which Meadows voted to slash more than $800 billion in the now-dead American Health Care Act. In 2016, there were 60,647 people, about 8 percent, on food stamps, roughly one-third of whom (19,617) would lose assistance under a House budget proposal, which Meadows says does not go far enough on welfare reform.

Dawn Reed, a 49-year-old Mitchell County resident, raised her hand during a constituent meeting with Meadows.

"Are there any plans for revamping Social Security, SSI, and disability? There are so many people on these programs, and it doesn't cover everyday living expenses," she said. Reed is on Social Security; two of her four adult children are also on welfare. She says a lot of people around her are too. Except it's getting harder and harder to make ends meet.

"People think that it's so easy to get on these programs and you get this big fat check. No. It doesn't work that way," Reed said, unknowingly unraveling some of the main arguments that conservatives — and Meadows — have made against a bloated welfare system for decades.

Meadows only reiterated the president's promise to leave Medicare and Social Security untouched, before launching into a mild tirade about Social Security's lack of accountability.

But back in Washington, Meadows supports a Freedom Caucus proposal that would make deep cuts to both food stamps and cash assistance — Rep. Jim Jordan's bill, which would harshen work requirements on adults without dependents as well as extend work requirements to adults with children — as a means of finding savings for tax reform and other Republican spending priorities.

Meadows also voted in favor of Medicaid cuts in the House's health bill, claiming they wouldn't affect his constituents in North Carolina — a non-Medicaid expansion state. That's not true. The AHCA put per capita caps on Medicaid funding, which would have resulted in cuts across the board.

"The people who rely on those services, who have become accustomed to those services as part of their lives, of course they don't want them to change," Matthew Wechtel, 47, the Madison County commissioner, said. "No one is opposed to giving people a hand up; what people resent it giving people a handout."

Meadows's constituents believe Trump when he says he represents the "forgotten man and woman." And many with a hatred for Obamacare trust him when he says he will protect their needs — regardless of the policy work he's actually doing back in Washington. It's part of the widely reported tension in the lives of white working-class Trump voters — Americans who support candidates who work to cut the social welfare programs they depend on.

"These people don't like to work," said Freddy Penland, 71, a Yancey County resident and former county commissioner, referring to people benefiting from social safety net programs. "They don't work. They get too much assistance."

Reed, who asked for bolstered Social Security, said she voted for Meadows — he's a "go-getter" she said. You'd hear it over and over again — people believe Meadows will do the right thing.

Meadows says he is "sensitive to the needs that are out there from a safety net perspective." On protections for people with preexisting conditions, which were weakened in nearly every iteration of the health care bill, he says to trust him.

"Since I have been a member of Congress, I have lost my sister to cancer," Meadows told me. "Preexisting condition was a big deal. To suggest that I am willing to look the other way on preexisting conditions defies not only what I have stated [but] who I am." The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan body which evaluates the impact of legislation, warned that the House's health care bill would lead to people with preexisting conditions having to pay more for health insurance.

The following day, touring a fire station in Granite Falls, North Carolina, talk had just turned to draining the swamp when the room momentarily fell silent. Grace Chapel volunteer firefighter John Taylor, a mustached man in uniform, looked to Meadows matter-of-factly.

"When you fear us, there's liberty," Taylor said. "When we fear you, it's tyranny."

"I'm gonna quote you," Meadows replied with a smile.

Can the Freedom Caucus govern?

Hours after the Senate failed to pass its three attempts at Obamacare repeal, I found myself asking Meadows what had just happened.

He had been on the phone with senators all day. The senators themselves, asked to comment on GOP leadership's final health plan — a skinny repeal of Obamacare — would point to a conversation between Meadows and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Ryan's comments seemed beside the point.

It felt familiar, a recognition of their leverage. But what makes Meadows and the Freedom Caucus powerful is what puts the entirety of the GOP's agenda at risk.

When Republicans return from August recess, they will have to tackle the debt ceiling, their budget, tax reform — and possibly a resurrection of Obamacare repeal efforts. Meadows has staked out his position on all three of those fronts, none of which have enough support from the Republican conference overall.

Meadows says if Republican leaders do not agree to sweeping changes to welfare programs and a tax plan that slashes corporate tax rates and doubles standard deductions for everyday Americans, the Freedom Caucus will not vote for the budget — a must-pass vehicle for tax reform. Already, Meadows has declared some minor victories, being in part responsible for killing the border adjustment tax — one of Republicans' few ideas to pay for massive tax cuts.

Meadows may be the perfect vehicle for Trumpism in the House, but he is not, thus far, the master of getting ideas passed into law. Unlike John Boehner, when faced with the Freedom Caucus's obstructionism, Paul Ryan does not appear likely to turn to Democrats for compromise. When Meadows says no, the whole train stops moving.

Meadows could deliver huge conservative wins over the next year, or he could crash what's left of the Trump agenda. That's how this works.

When Ryan says a vote is all or nothing — that you can either vote for the proposed plan to replace Obamacare or don't, making Obamacare the "law of the land" — Meadows's response is that there's no such thing as a "binary choice."

Any time you don't have the votes, "negotiations aren't totally over," he says. Not, at least, until Meadows says they are.