The internal strife rending the Republican party continued on Sunday, as one member of the House Freedom Caucus pledged to defend another if a primary challenge from a Trump-backed candidate, controversially threatened by a White House aide, should ever come to pass.
“Justin Amash is a good friend and one of the most principled members of Congress,” said Jim Jordan of Ohio, on CNN’s State of the Union. “Frankly, if he is primaried I’m going to do everything I can to help him.”
Jordan was responding to a tweet on Saturday from Dan Scavino Jr, the White House social media director. Using his personal account, Scavino Jr wrote: “@realDonaldTrump is bringing auto plants & jobs back to Michigan. @justinamash is a big liability. #TrumpTrain, defeat him in primary.”
Amash responded, tweeting: “Trump admin & Establishment have merged into #Trumpstablishment. Same old agenda: Attack conservatives, libertarians & independent thinkers.”
Trump has used Twitter to criticise the Freedom Caucus since it helped ensure the downfall of the American Health Care Act, the party’s attempt to replace Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, last week.
On Thursday, Jordan was among the president’s targets. Trump wrote: “If @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform.”
Scavino’s tweet represented an escalation of the conflict and, some observers said, a contravention of American law.
In an official statement, the White House said Scavino’s tweet did not violate federal law “as it clearly comes from his personal account and not his official White House account”.
But Daniel Jacobson, a White House lawyer under President Obama, tweeted that White House staff “can’t use an official or de facto govt Twitter acct (which this is) to call for defeat of a candidate.
“De facto means that if you tweet only about WH work from your account, it’s an official account. Labeling ‘personal’ doesn’t change that.”
Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under George W Bush and a strong critic of the Trump administration regarding ethics concerns, wrote: “This is use of official position to influence an election. Look at the photo and description underneath. Bush WH would have fired him.”
“Ethics 101,” he added. “You can’t put official titles and WH photos all over your ‘personal’ Twitter page and use it for partisan politics … Plus use official White House position to try to influence GOP primary which violates the Hatch Act, a firing offense. No ethics in this WH.”
On Sunday, Scavino remained in his job. Asked on CNN if he feared for his own job and those of his colleagues come the 2018 midterms, Jordan, who was a Division I wrestling champion in college, said: “Competition is fine, I’ve never shied away from competition.
“If that’s what happens, that’s what happens. That will be up to the voters.”
Jordan also repeated strong criticism of the AHCA and its handling by Republican leadership, saying: “Even Congress should be able to put together a piece of legislation that more than 17% of Americans like.”
He also insisted the Freedom Caucus was willing to work with the president on new healthcare legislation, and said: “Frankly I’m willing to work with Democrats if it’s consistent with what we told the voters we were going to do.”
Trump was also focusing on healthcare reform and its effect on Republican unity on Sunday, tweeting: “Anybody (especially Fake News media) who thinks that Repeal & Replace of ObamaCare is dead does not know the love and strength in R Party!
“Talks on Repealing and Replacing ObamaCare are, and have been, going on, and will continue until such time as a deal is hopefully struck.”