Less than 24 hours after Washington celebrated Independence Day, in the midst of a two-week stretch of round-the-clock discussions on healthcare reform and the GOP agenda, Rep. Mark Meadows drove up to the White House to talk strategy.
"Can you hold on just a second?" he asked the Washington Examiner as he rolled down the window to speak to security. "I'm heading in the guard gate." He's a busy guy, and he was in the middle of phone interview as he pulled into the executive mansion.
"I'm going up to see Steve Bannon," he said, not to his interviewer but to one of the rings of security. "Thank you."
Most lawmakers had gone home for a week's recess, but Meadows stuck around for a while at least. He and his wife, Debbie, had to celebrate America's 241st birthday with friends, but he also had business to attend to.
Healthcare reform and the rest of the Republican legislative agenda evolve continuously, and as they have, Meadows has become a central figure and a chief influencer in a federal Washington run by President Trump.
He has arrived in this unaccustomed position after years cementing his standing as the consummate outsider. Meadows is in his third term as a member of the House of Representatives. He won North Carolina's drastically-redrawn 11th District after an eight-way Republican primary contest in 2012.
He has certainly made his presence felt more than ever before in the first six months of the Trump presidency. Despite his nearly constant smile and an aw-shucks demeanor being very different from Trump's jaw-jutting demeanor, Meadows resembles the president in unmistakeable ways. He has challenged the party's traditional leaders and bucked the establishment. He used to be a real estate broker, he pitches himself as a negotiator, and uses news media effectively to build his influence. Who does that remind you of? But it must be conceded that Meadows is an emollient character and considerably less pugnacious than his president.
He's been a thorn in the side of the GOP leadership for years. But despite this, he has now cultivated a fruitful relationship with the Trump administration and has established a rapport with House leadership cordial enough to give the Freedom Caucus, of which he is head, not just a seat at the table but real influence.
This is what its members have pined for since the group was formed. The caucus famously tangled with the GOP's House conference when it was led by Speaker John Boehner, especially over a push in 2013 to defund Obamacare. That effort was spearheaded by Meadows. But the arrival of Trump has changed everything and has pushed the Freedom Caucus to the negotiating table, where Meadows, the real estate executive, is in his comfort zone.
"Before, it was very easy to be against things, and just say, 'This is our position. This is where we're going to be,'" Meadows said in one of three interviews with the Washington Examiner. "If you just say, 'Well, this is our position. That's all we're going to support,' we have at best four years to make this all work. Maybe, at worst, two years, and so becoming so rigid in a unified government makes you miss opportunities.
"Here, we know every single time if we're going to be a conservative conference, the votes of the 36 House Freedom Caucus members, every one of them counts. It's important that we get it right, but it's also important that we don't frustrate some of our colleagues, which we have done in the past and that we might have even done last week. But it's important that we see that we're persuadable, and hopefully the whole healthcare debate showed both ends of the spectrum — not persuadable, but persuadable."
The mild-mannered North Carolinian first gained attention, not to mention notoriety, for his repeated clashes with Boehner. He now regards his effort to oust Boehner by introducing a motion to "vacate the chair" as a "low point" and concedes that he was "naive." But he's changed since then. And in doing so, he has become a household name, at least inside Washington, during the healthcare fight, which he says was a "defining moment" for the caucus he leads. During that defining moment, Meadows was engulfed in the media crush that usually surrounds political A-listers or people drowning in scandal.
The healthcare fight was bruising for a caucus that wanted to get to "yes." When the caucus's opposition was at its peak, on March 21, Trump went to Capitol Hill for the House Republicans' weekly conference meeting and called out Meadows for the Freedom Caucus's recalcitrant opposition to the bill.
The president told GOP lawmakers that he could "come after" Meadows, but didn't think it would be necessary, which prompted Meadows to blush "sheepishly," according to a conservative aide. But Trump's jokey coercion backfired and instead of winning over or cajoling the Freedom Caucus into acquiescence, it stiffened members' opposition to the bill as 35 of the 38 members stood with their chairman.
"Anytime that you get called out by the president, it's not necessarily a good thing. I saw it as just the person he is where he's going to call me out and put that kind of pressure on me that would make most people wilt. I didn't take it personally," Meadows said, but "I felt unbelievable pressure. I think that what he doesn't realize is that the pressure I felt was already Herculean before he called me out, and then when he called me out, it was even greater."
Days later, just hours before the vote, when the American Health Care Act appeared to be on its deathbed, Meadows and the Freedom Caucus held an emotional meeting with Vice President Mike Pence at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican hotspot next to the Republican National Committee.
To this day, Meadows has no clue how Pence found out where the group was meeting, or who let him know about it. "I was quickly looking for NSA intel to have gathered enough to let him know where we were meeting," Meadows said of the gathering. Pence made an "impassioned plea," and managed to swing more than a handful of votes to "yes," but not nearly enough. At least 18 members remained hard "nos."
"[Meadows] was literally in tears," said a Freedom Caucus member, "He felt the weight of that meeting, and he wanted so much to get to ‘yes.'"
Less than two hours later, Trump and House leadership canceled the vote, and talks went on for the next 40 days, after which the bill passed with Freedom Caucus support on May 4. The final bill included the so-called MacArthur amendment, which Meadows negotiated with Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., to allow states to opt out of providing various health benefits in reduce the price of premiums.
Meadows was "worn down" during discussions "physically and mentally," a Freedom Caucus source recalls, thanks partly to nonstop calls to and from the White House and House Speaker Paul Ryan. There were many sleepless nights and a lot of work in the wee hours of the morning, Meadows says.
Once, days before the bill passed, an exhausted Meadows lamented to reporters outside the House chamber that it had been a long week, only to be reminded that it was only Monday.
Helping pass the bill was crucial to the Freedom Caucus. Many of its members, including Meadows, knew that others in the party conference said the group could never get to "yes."
"If we had not gotten to ‘yes' in the end, that would have been a problem," Meadows said. "It was a defining moment… [H]ad there not been a bill that was pulled on the Thursday or Friday, there would always have been the idea that the Freedom Caucus will cave in the end. But equally as important, had we not come around and provided the votes a few weeks later for 'yes,' there would have been the typical stereotype that they'll never get to 'yes.' "
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a Freedom Caucus member, put it more bluntly. "For a caucus or a group, simply ‘no' gets to be very, very dangerous in political terms," Sanford said. "You, at some point, have to find a way to get to ‘yes.' Not on every bill, but certainly on some of them, ‘cause if not, there's no reason to come your way from a negotiation standpoint and spend time with you. If it's just going to be ‘no,' I'll go elsewhere."
After years of being a leading figure in what was known on Capitol Hill as the "hell no" caucus, Meadows took over as leader in December from Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. The group had discussed making Jordan chairman for life, so it was a hard act to follow.
Jordan still commands respect, and he and Meadows describe each other as best friends, but the change in the caucus since Meadows took charge has been noticed on Capitol Hill and among members. Many argue that Jordan was a better fit for the Obama years but Meadows is right for today. Additionally, some members believe that without Meadows' negotiating, the bill would have failed.
Sanford said, "The personalities fit. Jim Jordan's background as a wrestler absolutely fit with his willingness to engage and tangle with the [Obama] administration. He's a fighter, and that's what the ring is all about.
"Mark is much more conciliatory. He's genteel. He's southern. He's cordial, and at times you can get more, certainly with this administration, with sweet rather than sour."
Meadows hardly disputes this, saying, "Do we have two different styles? Yeah. Jim was a two-time national champion wrestler, and I wasn't. I've gotta go to my strengths, and he can go to his."
Still, the Freedom Caucus is still regarded with skepticism months after it support the healthcare bill. Outsiders wonder whether the healthcare bill was a one-off or whether a readiness to compromise will also be apparent in negotiations over tax reform and other items on the GOP agenda.
"Only time will tell," said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., another Trump ally. "I actually think all of us took a step, hopefully, forward ... in the Tuesday Group and the Freedom Caucus, let's hope."
Not everyone agrees with Sanford. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a former Freedom Caucus stalwart, said, "I don't think the organization is any different with Meadows than it is with Jordan. If Mark Meadows gets run over by a bus tomorrow, I don't think it changes the nature of the Freedom Caucus."
Whatever is the case, Meadows has become an ally of the White House. He has shown an ability to bridge the gap between the administration and his group of more than 30 conservatives lawmakers. He texts with Steve Bannon nearly every day, and keeps in regular contact with Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, Kellyanne Conway, and Reince Priebus. His warm relationship these senior lieutenants, and with the president, dates back to the campaign, during which he and his wife, Debbie, worked extensively for Trump.
After the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape was leaked to the press, setting off scandalized and electorally dangerous discussion about Trump's treatment of women, Republicans of many stripes, especially those facing tough re-election battles, abandoned Trump. But Meadows and his wife stayed on board, literally and figuratively. Debbie Meadows boarded a "Women for Trump" bus with 10 other wives of congressmen, and defended the candidate. Trump and the White House have not forgotten this, and are unlikely ever to do so.
"We will always remember how tenacious and loyal Mark and Debbie Meadows were, especially after Oct. 7. They're definitely members of what we call the ‘Oct. 8th coalition,'" said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, in an interview.
"In the final month, beginning with her boarding that bus … in the face of a great deal of pressure to do otherwise — tells you something about their tenacity and loyalty," Conway added.
The relationship between the White House and the Meadows couple goes a lot further than politics. In the middle of an interview at the Congressional Baseball Game in June, Conway stopped briefly to take a selfie with a Meadows staffer before the two bonded momentarily over Debbie's culinary skills.
"Guess what's in my bag in the car," Conway said to the staffer.
Staffer: "No way, what is it?!"
Conway: "Debbie Meadows' cookies! She sent me cookies the other day,"
Staffer: "Oh my God. Are you serious?!"
Conway: "Oh my God, the filled ones ... Here, we need to get a good picture."
Meadows knows his wife's cookies, saying the above exchange was about a fruit-filled variety, and that his wife has also been known to send those, and pound cakes, to friends and Capitol Police officers.
Meeting the press
Given the relationship with Trump and the White House, it's no surprise that Meadows has seen his profile grow exponentially.
When Trump brought many House Republicans to the Rose Garden to celebrate the passage of their repeal and replace bill, Meadows stood prominently at the president's right shoulder next to Ryan and House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady.
In subsequent days, Meadows was hailed for his role. Breitbart, the pro-Trump website, ran a headline reading, "SPEAKER MEADOWS?"
A former House leadership aide described Meadows back in the Boehner days as someone with a penchant for saying completely contradictory things, no matter the issue, adding, "You never knew what to believe."
These days, Meadows keeps in touch with Ryan, often via text, and meets him weekly for lunch with Jordan, top members of the Tuesday Group, Republican Study Committee, and the House leadership.
"His outreach is certainly not being lost on me," Meadows said of Ryan. But their relationship isn't where it could be or where leadership would like it to be. "I wouldn't say [it's] good... it's tenuous and strained at times. It's much easier if you say yes and go along."
Meadows is well liked by House members, and counts most GOP conference and some Democrats as friends. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a fellow member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says Meadows' "charm" and "humor" help the two find common ground.
"He listens, he's willing to learn, and he doesn't come necessarily with an ideological, a priori, view on an issue," Connolly said. "I can't ask more from a colleague than that."
Meadows greatly desires to be liked, colleagues say, and this can make him thin-skinned.
"He's very sensitive and takes criticism very harshly," a Freedom Caucus source said, pointing to Meadows getting worked up over Facebook comments from constituents and phoning them personally. "He is deeply hurt if people dislike him." Meadows doesn't deny it, but says he'd rather be "understood" than liked.
Meadows reportedly got down on his knees in front of Boehner in 2013 and apologized for leading the coup. Boehner spread the story in 2015, but a Meadows staffer says it's not true.
He has courted the press, and can often be found talking to reporters. The Freedom Caucus is a press-friendly group and has negotiated through the media, including recently when it wanted members to stay in Washington and work through the August recess.
"I love [the media]. I'll tell you what, I don't know if they like me, but I like them. I really do," Meadows said. "You got two options: You either don't talk to the press and the story is written, or you do talk to the press and the story is written. … I try to give as much possible time as I can. We do think that it's important that we share our side of the story."
Meadows' approach couldn't be more different from that of the White House's, which is hostile with the press and frequently decries reports it disagrees with as "Fake News." Meadows doesn't criticize or buck the White House often, but breaks with it about the news media.
"I made a rule a long time ago," Meadows said, quoting an old adage. "You never make enemies with people who buy ink in barrels.
"My style is one that is less confrontational. [I] try to win people over with the argument more than arguing. So as I see it, it's just making sure that you present the best case that you can to the media and I think the larger story there is being able to interact with the media at times when you feel like they're not giving you a fair shake. You have to make sure that you call it out," he said. "But I've always found that I'm going to focus on the argument [rather] than trying to create a sense of fairness."
Reporters stake out Caucus dinners, held weekly on the second floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. The dinners used to be held at Tortilla Coast or Hunan Dynasty, both Capitol Hill locales, but were relocated due to structural deficiencies, specifically after Tortilla Coast's basement flooded and Hunan Dynasty caught fire in November.
Meadows' coziness with the press is reviled in other quarters of the GOP conference. Members of the Freedom Caucus are known for giving their cellphone members to reporters and being widely accessible.
"He leaks, and he likes the media a lot. Sometimes, it makes it difficult to work with him," a longtime colleague said, adding that the Freedom Caucus is a mirror image in that sense. "I think that maybe their desire to get on the media undermines their credibility with some of their colleagues."
But while Meadows' closeness with the press is bound to keep him in headlines, his real power is in the roughly 36 votes he can help sway, enough to derail or prop up legislation, and his closeness with a president who could make or break his future.