Representative David Brat on Trump, Health Care, and What the Freedom Caucus Really Wants

Representative Brat is a big fan of James Madison. Photo: Olivia Nuzzi

Congressman David Brat’s office is located on the sixth floor of the Longworth Building, across from Capitol Hill. The Republican from Virginia’s 7th District is a member of the Freedom Caucus, a band of far-right and libertarian-leaning House members who generally make life hell for more traditional conservatives.

Most recently, in March, they refused to back the GOP health-care bill, forcing leadership to withdraw it. This denied President Donald Trump a legislative victory within his first 100 days in office, and prompted him to threaten them in a tweet. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” he wrote. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018.”

When I arrived in Brat’s office on Wednesday afternoon, a new iteration of the bill had earned the support of the Freedom Caucus and was expected to be brought for a vote on Thursday, one day before Congress goes into recess. What follows is our conversation, which was conducted while Brat sat on his leather couch and drank a Coca-Cola, with his communications director Juliana Heerschap looking on. The congressman discussed how he works with the Trump administration, his view of the president, and why he thinks he’s just like James Madison.

What’s your opinion of how Trump has been, generally, since he got in office?
Overall it’s good. I don’t think any other person could’ve brought this much change to this city.

What change?
Oh, the health-care bill, I think it goes through, and then [tax reform] goes through in a few months. He’s already got Russia totally recalibrating all their client states, and the same with China. They’re all saying, Where’s our new red line now? Because, kaboom in Syria. That sends a signal not just to Syria but to everyone else: Don’t kill babies, right? Or we’re gonna come in. And then Pakistan? Kaboom. The big bomb, right? Quit building tunnels, quit helping ISIS, whatever. And that sends signals to North Korea and Russia and China and etcetera.

Well the signal to North Korea didn’t seem to particularly work.
Eh, we’ll see. We’re engaged with them now aggressively.

Does the president ever call you?
Yeah, a few weeks ago.

How’d that go?
Loud. Loud, vocal exchange.

What did he say?
He said, “Get onboard the health bill!”

How does that start, he just said, “Hi, Dave”?
No, he likes me. We chat: “How am I doing?” “How’s it going?” “How do you like this?”

But he yelled at you?
No, I just said loud. New York loud. It’s just New York loud.

Is it difficult dealing with this president, because of his unpredictable nature?
He’s learning the politics up here. I think he’s used to New York and dealing with Democrats, with Republicans and independents as just his friends. I don’t think he’s overly political. I don’t think he used to view people in terms of R’s or D’s, for example. So he gets up here and he’s like, “Uh, well, let’s make a deal. So, let’s make a budget deal.” Most of this was settled in appropriations last year, you know. He wants a few things: $1 billion for a wall, out of $4 trillion. Doesn’t get that. Gets nothing. Gets nothing on the immigration front. Gets nothing on a bunch of fronts. And then [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer’s smiling like the Cheshire Cat the next day in the paper, and Trump’s going, like, “Wow, really? That’s how this city works?” And so I think he’s ticked off.

Who are they sending over here most often to negotiate with you guys on health care?
Vice-President Pence most of the time, Mick Mulvaney somewhat.

What have those talks been like?
Very constructive! I mean, none of that got reported, ’cause we’re, like, the conservatives, right?

I’m happy to report it.
We’re like these right-wing knuckle-draggers. Look at the walls, right? I’ve got a Ph.D. in economics. I went to Princeton Seminary. And so it’s like, is that right wing? Here’s James — I’m pointing to a picture of James Madison, right? Adam Smith. I’m basically a classical liberal. Milton Freedman. Classical liberal. Chicago economics. And there’s the rest of Western civ, right? There’s Plato, I’m pointing to Plato. Aristotle. I’ve read all of it.

This is just going to be a piece about you pointing to things.
I know. And so then the press labels you a right-winger for voting on the very things that made the West great. Free markets, rule of law, all of it.

Are you reading that right now? [A copy of Trump’s book The Art of the Deal is on the table next to Brat.]
Oh, I already read it. It’s good. It’s very insightful as to how he thinks. It reminds me of the old management books back in the ’80s, ’90s.

Have you used any of the tactics from the book?
No, I’m not exactly a broker at the table. He’s very good, but you don’t know what the deal is he’s got in his mind. So that’s, like, are we in, like, the middle of a negotiating thing? Or is he at the end of it? Or is he at the beginning of it? And you don’t know, right? So that’s the hard part for us, we’re like, “We think he wants this, but we know how he negotiates, so where are we?”

When you do meet with him, what does he say he wants with health care, because he’s said some very conflicting things about health care in the past, including some very sweeping things that seem unrealistic. What does he articulate to you?
Right. Well, that’s what I mean. He said, “I want to cover everybody” as best as he can. He doesn’t mean, you know, communism. He’s a business guy. So he just wants, in a realistic way, to try to provide coverage for people. Preexisting conditions is coming up right now, and so you just take an intuitive this is roughly what he wants — he wants to lower the price of competition, shop across lines, etcetera.

That’s what he’s said to you?
Well, and that’s what he said out in the papers. And then the press says, Well, he says he’s gonna fully insure everybody with gold plating in his heart.

When you’re talking to him, though, how do you respectfully, since he’s the president, how do you explain to him that actually this is very complex and you can’t just wave a magic wand to insure everyone?
Well, he knows it on the one level and at the other level, he wants to move on this because he really wants to get to taxes. I think that’s the passion: He wants to see the whole economy just pop.

Why not just start with tax reform rather than kind of force this health-care thing haphazardly?
Well, it’s a good question in retrospect because now you’re scratching your head, Why not do it? But I think the biggie was that we promised for seven years to repeal Obamacare. It’s the biggest political promise. So taxes is probably more important in terms of the total impact on the economy in every way, but health care was the biggie.

So how’s it going?
Believe it or not, I think we’re gonna get a vote tomorrow on health care. I think it’s there, but we’ll see.

What did you think of Representative Fred Upton’s remarks yesterday?
On flipping to yes? That’s fine, good. He just wants a little bit more assurance on preexisting conditions. I’m totally assured on preexisting.

For you, just day-to-day doing your job, is it easier now with Trump as president?
Oh, it’s way better, yeah. It always was House, Senate, and then President Obama. If there was anything that was anywhere near conservative, free-market stuff, it was a no. And on foreign policy, I had no faith that the U.S. was gonna take an active role in the world. So now, no, we got major momentum, and it’s just doing this dance now, ’cause he’s new to politics. But he’s good, he’s a business guy.

Without him, for example, this health-care thing would’ve been so dead, it would just be lying on the road. With him, he doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s, “House? Get going! Senate? Get!” Just boom! When he weighs in, he’s just got huge energy. He’s revived this thing umpteen times, and he was putting pressure on our group, too, the House Freedom Caucus, about a month ago.

Back to trying to figure out where his head is at, how do you do that?
I mean, you know strategically, roughly, what he wants. But in this city, roughly’s not it. He’s big-picture: “Look, repeal Obamacare, replace it with something that makes some sense.” But then when you get down in the weeds in our conference, and the Senate hasn’t even weighed in yet … and he’s like, “Are you kidding, you guys are arguing over that? When this is the goal?” And I think he’s amazed.

[Trump was like that with] the whole budget process. But now he’ll weigh in way more in September [on the next budget], because he’s learned that if you don’t weigh in, that what comes out of the sausage factory is not always pretty.

During the last health-care fight, Trump said something at the end, like, “There are some arcane rules in Washington!” Do you get the impression when you speak to him, or when you speak to people in the administration, that he’s just getting whiplash every day trying to make sense of all of this?
Well, anybody is. He’s already taken on the whole foreign-policy piece, which is mind-numbing. He’s doing China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, ISIS, simultaneously in his head and then he’s gotta do this domestic agenda. So I think he’s frustrated there. It’s like, “You guys! Can’t you handle anything? Can’t you guys figure out this thing so I don’t have to have a headache and micromanage you on this stuff?”

But on the health care, we had three weeks, right? They plopped a bill down that none of us had seen. And so that wasn’t Trump’s deal, right? That was a brand-new bill that we had to study and get our head around and get back with our constituents, so that’s not on him. There’s the bill that we had seven years to work on, and he thinks, “Okay, that’s the bill!” And he has to come in behind it with Vice-President Pence and clean up and keep the energy going.

How do you feel about Paul Ryan’s role in this?
He’s plenty smart on the policy but our group wasn’t included on the construction of that bill, so that was a frustration. And there was no competing bill.

Does President Trump’s lack of concern about deficits and spending concern you at all?
I don’t know yet. That’s what we’re gonna find out on the tax bill.

What do you think I need to understand and my readers need to understand about what your constituents want in the health-care bill?
Oh, they want the federal government out of it. Quit ruining our lives. Get the federal government out of our lives. Give the money back down to the states. Let us do stuff down here. Education? Get out of our lives. Let our teachers teach the kids right down here. Let’s design stuff at the local level.

It feels like we’re in this sort of brave new world with the Trump administration, everything changes from day to day, hour to hour sometimes. How do you deal with that?
Well, that’s harder, I mean we’re sorting that out, as to how all of these bills fit into that broader vision we all want. That’s hard. No one’s got the time to sit back and reflect on, Hey, where are we really heading? When we’re done with all these bills, what’s it look like?

The framework for you guys is Make America Great Again. That’s not a lot to go with, really.
Well, it’s just execution right now. Health care, we needed to define that target more clearly upfront. So on taxes, I think they’re gonna align the sights now much better, and that’s what they’re doing. Mnuchin right now is laying out, Here’s what we wanna do. And we’ll see if that’s compatible with our House piece and whatever.

What do you expect to happen with the vote tomorrow?
I think it goes thumbs-up. Health care, I think it passes. I think they’ve got the votes.

And then from there —
And then it doesn’t take that long to do taxes, but that’s a war, right? That’s real money, and Trump said, “I’m gonna clean the swamp.” So that’s a biggie. Now, is that gonna happen? Probably not. But if we move somewhat toward it, most of us would go, “Okay, that’s a valiant effort,” getting rid of a lot of the loopholes and whatever.

Last time around, you said that “something in the swamp said no” on the Republican health-care bill. What did that mean?
Oh, yeah. Special interests! There’s some mystery with special interests and power up here that needs to be broken up. So if Trump can get rid of that by setting up the institutions better and getting rid of all these special interest connections, that’s a total winner.

But that could never happen, realistically, right?
It should! [Brat points to Madison’s portrait.] It’s his document!

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q&A: David Brat on What the Freedom Caucus Really Wants