When Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to win Michigan in 28 years, any number of Democrats seemed poised to become his regional rival-in-chief.
Who would have guessed it would be a Republican instead?
Since before Trump took office, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a youthful fourth-term libertarian congressman with a wry grin whose Grand Rapids-based district was once represented by Gerald Ford, has been sniping at the new president. He has belittled him on Twitter for criticizing civil rights legend John Lewis of Georgia, blasted a decision to bomb a Syrian air base without congressional approval and — most notably —successfully led a charge to derail a hastily drawn Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
For those used to working with him, it comes as no surprise that Amash — who in six years has missed only one vote and explains every position he takes on Facebook for anyone to see — would take on such a role. Since joining Congress in 2011, he has been part of the rump in the Republican Party and battled openly with the leadership. And when GOP leaders in Michigan’s delegation have tried to bring him into line on party initiatives, they've had little success.
“I’ve never seen him help the ball club,” said Republican political consultant Jamie Roe, who worked for years as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican from Harrison Township.
Roe said that when Miller was a member of the whip team to line up Republican votes, Amash often refused to commit.
Amash, from Cascade Township, keeps up a torrid schedule and was in the middle of a work period in his district; he wasn’t available for a sit-down with the Free Press in time for this story.
His supporters see him as principled, and he still has powerful allies. But Amash's refusal to go along to get along could mean trouble on the horizon. Already, the Trump administration has threatened to go after the so-called Freedom Caucus — of which Amash is a leader — for bringing down House Speaker Paul Ryan's Obamacare replacement bill. A White House aide suggested directly that Amash face a primary opponent.
Richard Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, didn't mention Amash by name but said there is a growing sense of frustration among business leaders that there hasn’t been more movement on tax and regulatory reform. “I think business people are being patient but they want results.”
Love him or hate him, though, Amash represents a stark divide in the Republican Party — one that refuses to acquiesce to the old rules and all the traditional Republican positions —- that has only grown more problematic as the GOP has taken power across Washington. In libertarian circles, he is talked about as a candidate for higher — even national — office, though he has made no such suggestions himself.
A thorn in their side
While Amash has been seen as outwardly supportive of some members of the Trump team — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family has long supported him, and Vice President Mike Pence, for instance — and has said he is willing to work with the administration, he hasn't been shy about taking on the president
When the ACA replacement bill was floated, he criticized it openly on Twitter, saying, "Both Republican and Democratic establishments have incentive to pretend this bill repeals Obamacare when it does no such thing," later lecturing both Trump and Ryan, R-Wis., that the "House is supposed to be a deliberative body where outcomes are discovered, not dictated. Compromise and consensus cannot be centrally planned."
In February, when Trump appeared to support civil asset forfeiture — in which law enforcement can take assets from someone suspected of a crime — Amash commented that the president "today endorsed stealing property from law-abiding Americans who haven't been charged — let alone convicted of — any crime."
His positions are apparently more deeply entrenched than some may guess: When a comment on Twitter noted that with Amash, you get the same politician in 2017 that you had in 2013, he responded, "I was the same person in grade school, too. Sadly, nobody wanted to hear about the Rule of Law from an 11-year-old."
As recently as last week, Amash, 36, was criticizing his party’s leaders in meetings with constituents across west Michigan, saying that if Ryan can’t move toward a nonpartisan agenda, it’s time for a new speaker. As for threats that the administration may target him next year if he doesn’t shape up, Amash said he isn’t worried — he has beaten challenges before — and that Trump's the one not answering questions at voter meetings like the half-dozen Amash has held already this year.
“I’m the one holding a town hall here today, not Donald Trump, right?” Amash said to wild applause from a crowd in Cedar Springs.
It's natural that Amash —- who can usually be found hustling to a meeting in Congress or employing a professorial air in explaining the legal and economic ins and outs of legislation to constituents — has become such a provocateur: If cable news and mainstream media outlets have only recently discovered him, for the Michigan media, as well as for libertarian blogs and Capitol Hill publications that chart every move in Congress, Amash’s obstinacy and fervor when it comes to what he sees as matters of principle are a given.
“Amash is always great at weighing in. ... He’s one of the principled members of Congress,” said U.S. Rep Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who helped found the Freedom Caucus.
That independence — which some call contrariness — isn't always welcome. Not by a long shot.
In the past, he has been branded “Al Qaeda’s best friend” in Congress by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., for breaking with GOP orthodoxy and coming out against surveillance powers for government, an effort in which he joined Detroit Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers. For years, he was seen as part of the faction trying — and eventually succeeding — in running former House Speaker John Boehner out of town. A break with Ryan years ago — when Ryan was Budget Committee chairman — led to Amash being tossed from the committee. Amash didn't think Ryan's plan balanced the budget quickly enough.
He has argued for curtailing military spending where necessary, along with the rest of the federal budget. And he has, at times, refused to cast votes for GOP policies he supports — such as defunding Planned Parenthood or authorizing the Keystone oil pipeline — in cases when he sees legislation as rushed, flawed or potentially having unintended consequences.
“When you rush into things, you make big mistakes,” Amash said two weeks ago at a sit-down sponsored by Politico — a Washington-based political publication — to talk about why he and other members of the Freedom Caucus derailed the Republican-led health care reform bill that denied Trump his first major legislative victory. That led to a rare intraparty dust-up in which Trump’s social media director, Dan Scavino, called for Amash’s defeat in 2018.
Amash retorted on Twitter: “Trump admin & Establishment have merged into #Trumpstablishment. Same old agenda: Attack conservatives, libertarians & independent thinkers.”
It’s not just the national Republican establishment that has shaken its head at Amash, who first backed Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul for president before switching to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Members of the Michigan delegation have found him mercurial, and his record in supporting regional priorities has been up and down, sometimes joining delegation letters on key local issues such as a replacement navigation lock at Sault Ste. Marie or keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan, and at other times not.
In 2014, when Miller touted a water-resources development bill she helped write that provided federal authority to slow the spread of Asian carp and a mechanism to raise funding for dredging Great Lakes harbors and channels, Amash was one of only four members of the U.S. House who voted against it, having supported a less-expensive version.
“Everyone has tried in their own way to work with Justin,” said a person close to the delegation who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity involved in characterizing the relationships between the members. Those who have tried, the person said, have often gone away frustrated.
Roe said it's that contrary streak that hurts Republican efforts overall.
“I can’t remember one tough vote ever where he voted for the (Republican) team,” Roe said. “It’s him and others like him who hold out for the perfect (bill) and force the leadership to go get votes from Democrats. It makes the legislation that gets passed more liberal.”
Contrast that, however, to the views of Amash's followers on social media — those who say, “Thank you for at least being man enough to face constituents face-to-face” at a time when other Republicans are accused of ducking meetings at home in their districts. Or of Democrats who tell him they don’t agree with him but appreciate his transparency — and the fact that he explains every vote that he takes on Facebook.
"By nearly every measure, #SConRes3 is the worst budget I've seen as a congressman," he wrote in one post about the Republican budget resolution introduced earlier this year. "It grows the national debt by trillions of dollars."
And when Trump issued his first travel order in January, Amash had this to say:
"President Trump's executive order overreaches and undermines our constitutional system. It's not lawful to ban immigrants on the basis of nationality. If the president wants to change immigration law, he must work with Congress."
His supporters tell him to “fight on” in the face of opposition from his own party.
Last month, Amash, a Grand Rapids native born to an immigrant mother from Syria and a Palestinian refugee who became a businessman, missed his first ever vote, racing into the chamber trying to beat the call of the chair. There's nothing terribly unusual about a member missing the occasional vote.
Amash, however, broke down in tears.
He issued an apology to his constituents via Twitter. For missing a vote on a Democratic amendment that failed by 40 votes.
Principled and consistent
Amash's numerous appearances, vote explanations and presence on social media make his positions relatively easy to chart. As the Free Press has chronicled over the years, Amash — who considered running for the U.S. Senate when Carl Levin announced his retirement in 2013 but decided against it — is perhaps the most transparent member of the U.S. House.
Paradoxically, he is also one of the most enigmatic — at least by Washington standards.
There is, for instance, no questioning his conservative bona fides. Armed with an impish smile and an easy shrug, in town hall meetings, the trim, youthful Amash defends, even if somewhat nervously at times, his firm belief in limited government, in turning health care back to the free market and the states, in not employing regulations to combat climate change, which he says may be happening but without more data over the eons of Earth's existence is hard to put into its true context.
In this current Congress, he has cosponsored legislation you might see coming from many conservative Republicans: to stop environmental overreach, to limit abortion rights, to get rid of the U.S. Education Department now headed by DeVos, whose west Michigan family has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Amash’s campaigns.
At the same time, however, he has backed legislation that contradicts Republican orthodoxy: ending federal prohibitions on marijuana and stopping the federal government from “militarizing” local law enforcement by selling it surplus equipment such as armored vehicles.
He’s also one of two Republican cosponsors of a Democratic bill requiring presidential candidates to release three years of tax returns.
He was one of 15 Republicans to vote against legislation that could lead to Internet providers being able to sell information on their customers’ browsing habits, though, as he said in a lengthy explanation to constituents, his position was largely because it was a show vote that failed to achieve the uniform standard Republican leaders suggested it would help create.
Those complaints — consistency, constitutionality, unintended consequences — come up a lot when Amash talks about his votes. As does the need for what’s known on Capitol Hill as “regular order,” meaning bill hearings and markups and an open amendment process. Too often, Amash argues, party leaders try to dictate what a bill should look like when it leaves the chamber or kill the vote altogether.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who is among Amash’s closest friends in Congress, called him “extremely consistent and principled.” Will Adams, Amash’s former chief of staff and a political consultant who does work for him, said he’s motivated by three principles: “individual liberty, the defense of the Constitution, economic freedom,” and the consequences be damned.
“Most Americans would prefer a representative who acts based on policy and principle to a representative who is a partisan hack, not to put too fine a point on it,” Adams said.
But there are also those — like Ryan, like Trump — who suggest that with Republicans now in charge of Congress and the White House, it is time for their party to move, as a bloc, from one of opposition to governing. And that means taking votes that may be incremental in nature but will lead to change.
After all, Amash and the Freedom Caucus may have derailed Ryan's health care bill but there is no process in place now for repealing and replacing Obamacare — a pledge every Republican in Congress ran on.
Ready to fight for change
Three years ago, Amash was on the outs with state and national chambers of commerce, as well as Michigan Right to Life, for not toeing the party and ideological line over process. They got behind a Grand Rapids businessman, Brian Ellis, to challenge Amash in the primary. Amash beat him, 57%-43%.
Would 2018 be different? Ellis told the Free Press two weeks ago that “the results (in 2014) showed (how) people felt, but I think since then he’s walking a thinner and thinner line.”
Still, Amash did better than Trump did in his district last November, by a sizable margin. And Amash still has some powerful allies to count on. Doug Sachtleben, spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth, told the Free Press that Amash “is a rock star of economic conservatism.”
If Trump were to go after Amash directly, he’d be forced to do so aligning more directly with establishment Republicans he eschewed while claiming independence from Washington insiders in his own race last year, a move that could prove perilous to maintaining his own base deeply suspicious of inside-the-Beltway thinking.
Meanwhile, Amash seems to be striking a more nonpartisan tone, posting George Washington’s 1789 farewell address in which he warned his audience “against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally” and calling on Ryan directly to work with members of both parties to end gridlock.
It’s not that he’s calling for more liberal legislation.
“The problem is the process,” Amash said, bemoaning the level of partisanship and saying, “The people in charge … don’t seem too interested in addressing it.”
But an open process — in which every detail of each piece of legislation is fought out in the House chamber — could become a donnybrook, making the parties, especially the party in charge, seem out of control. Even when a party controls the process of a big complex bill — take the Affordable Care Act in 2009-10 — it can take months if not years to get it passed.
Amash argues that process shouldn't be used to dictate what happens.
"They (leadership) use the rules to get the outcome that they want," he said at the Politico sit-down. "That's not how our government is supposed to operate."
Roe said Amash and others in the Freedom Caucus, which includes North Carolina U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, Ohio's Jordan, Texas U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert and others, "don't live in the real world.” The tough votes — the ones that test a legislators' effectiveness — are the incremental ones, he said. They are the ones that strike a balance between what one side might see as perfect policy and what is politically achievable in a town of competing interests.
In other words: Learning to compromise with your own side for the best bill possible is all part of governing.
But there are plenty of others who say Amash and others like him are holding out for something more worthwhile and who think, if Trump or his allies come after him in his district, they should be ready for a fight.
“He recognizes that every time we compromise, we lose. There is compromising when it makes sense and there is just giving in to keep peace,” said Howell political consultant Wendy Day, a supporter of Amash. “Giving into keep peace hurts our country.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Jake Szetela owns an insurance agency and is a self-described independent Republican in Grand Rapids. He shares many of Amash’s beliefs — on questions such as those involving personal liberty and government surveillance, for instance. He wants to keep the military strong but also wants to know it is not wasting money.
It’s Amash’s commitment to defending his votes that impresses him most. He moved to Grand Rapids from Mt. Pleasant, in part so he could vote for Amash.
“I always wanted to cast votes for a person I can believe in,” he said.