The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Rep. Raul Labrador

R-Idaho

A Republican from Idaho, Raul Labrador was elected to Congress in 2010, one of many freshman Republican members elected in the wake of what was referred to as the Tea Party summer. In 2015, Labrador was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, which he describes as a group of reform-minded conservatives.

In this interview, Labrador discusses the expectations he had for President Barack Obama, his disappointment with Obama's presidency, and his experiences with Republican leadership in Washington that led to the founding of the Freedom Caucus.

Congressman Labrador recalls feeling that "if we didn't do what we told the American people we were going to do, that the backlash was not going to be against the Democrats, the backlash was going to be against us as a party."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on June 15, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start out before you come to Washington, but as they call it, the Tea Party summer happens, summer of 2009. Talk a little bit about what was going on out in America that led toward a lot of new freshmen being elected the year after, what the White House specifically did or did not understand about the ferment, some of the anger that was out there and what it was caused by.

First, you need to go back to the election of Barack Obama. Barack Obama was elected because a lot of Republicans chose not to vote for Republicans because they were upset with the Republican Party. ... What was misunderstood is that people thought this was a backlash against Barack Obama. There was a backlash against the Republican Party. There was a backlash. That's what caused, I think, the election of Barack Obama, because people were so disappointed with the George W. Bush administration toward the end. I think if you remember when they had the bailout, they had all these different things that happened under the George W. Bush presidency. Republicans were upset, and they wanted a new direction for the party.

Then Obama was elected, and you had the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, which became a turning point for the Tea Party movement, where they were just upset now with both parties, and they wanted to come to Washington and change everything that was happening in Washington, D.C.

The TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] vote that took place during the end of the Bush administration, how was that viewed, and why did that happen?

I don't know why it went down on the first vote because I wasn't here in Washington, but I know what the reaction was out [there]. I was in the state legislature. As a Republican state legislator, I couldn't believe that we were even considering having a TARP vote under a Republican president. When it failed, I think everybody was happy with that. But then all of a sudden they revived it, and a lot of people felt like they were betrayed by the party, that the party was actually doing something that they should not have been doing and the president should have vetoed.

Because?

Because you were bailing out people. You were bailing out people that got themselves in trouble at the time by making bad decisions. Main Street was in trouble, and we were taking care of Wall Street. That's what the frustration was, and you're seeing it on the right and the left. You saw it back then, and you're seeing it in our political climate today, where the right and the left are upset that they feel every time that if you're connected to Washington, D.C., if you're a lobbyist, a lawyer, somebody who has the right connections, Washington, D.C.'s going to take care of you. But the mom-and-pop shops in Idaho, they're not being taken care of; they're not really being looked after.

So how does this lead to the 2010 elections, which turn out to be pretty monumental when it comes to change in Washington?

In 2010, you had this whole army of people that decided that they wanted to change the direction of Washington, D.C., and every person who was running for office said that they were going to come here to change it. The figure that became sort of the villain in this case wasn't Barack Obama; it was actually Nancy Pelosi. In fact, the whole Republican Party, their mantra was "Fire Pelosi." That was what we talked about. There was a "Fire Pelosi" tour that went through every major congressional district that we were trying to turn. It went through Idaho. We had t-shirts that said "Fire Pelosi" because there was such a disgust about what the Affordable Care Act had done, and the fact that we believed as constituents, we believed that people running for Congress, as Americans, that we had been deceived; that this plan had been done in the middle of the night; that Washington, D.C., had decided to take over one-sixth of the economy and that they had lied to the American people. When they said that you could keep your doctor, we knew that you couldn't keep your doctor. When they said that the economics of this was going to allow for people to actually pay less for their health insurance, it was just unfathomable. There was no way that you could pay less when there were more services being provided and mandated by the federal government.

So the emphasis is on Congress and Pelosi. What about the White House? Did the White House get what was going on?

I don't know. I don't think they ever did, but I also think there's a difference between the White House and this president and Republicans and Congress. I think this president always believed that it was his duty to pass legislation that talked to his base, even if they paid a political price for it, whereas the Republican leadership does not want to pass good legislation. That's why we're frustrated with them right now. They're more concerned about keeping their majority in the House and the Senate.

I think Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi were fine with passing this monumental piece of legislation that they have been trying for 50 to 100 years to pass, even if they lost seats in the House.

But he came in stating that he was going to be the bipartisan president.

That's the most disappointing thing about this president. I remember two incidents with this president that to me were transpartisan, that were beyond partisanship. The first one, I think it was the 2004 speech that he gave at the Democratic Convention. I watched the Democratic Convention, and I watched his speech. It was probably the best political speech that I remember in my adult life, other than Ronald Reagan. I remember watching that speech and thinking--I turned to my wife, in fact, and I said, "This guy is going to be president of the United States." At the time, I think he had just been elected to the Senate or was about to be elected to the Senate, and I seriously was so impressed with his speech that I just thought, this guy is going to be president. Now, that didn't mean that I was happy with that; I just knew that he had that kind of political talent.

The second event was the day of his election. I was obviously devastated that my party didn't win. As a strong Republican, I couldn't believe that America had chosen who I thought was maybe a socialist, somebody who was a left-leaning person. But as an American, I watched the election of the first African American president, and I choked up a little bit. I was proud of my country, even though I was mad that it had to be a Democrat who was the first African American president.

I was really proud of my country, and then he spoke at his inaugural, and I thought he was going to be a great president. I thought he was going to bring America together. He gives these beautiful speeches about not being a blue America or a red America; we're the United States of America. I really believed that he believed that. Then I watched his first two years and not once did he ever act according to his speeches. It was always in a defiant way toward the Republicans, where he told them, "It's either my way or the highway." He never even tried to meet the Republicans halfway during those first two years, and he hasn't during his entire presidency.

Thus the 2010 elections. Talk a little bit, because we sat down with Eric Cantor; we did about an hour and a half with him. What was Cantor's role, the Young Guns, in that election, in wooing Tea Party folk, finding people that they thought could win the majority? Talk a little bit about their overview, their involvement in the election and how when the new 87 freshmen came in, they tried to take them under their arm and train them or whatever, to bring them into the fold?

I'm a little different than most of the 87, and the reason I'm a little different is that I actually defeated a Young Gun to get here. I was not the party-preferred candidate. In fact, when I got into the race, I couldn't even get the establishment in Washington to talk to me because they already had chosen somebody in the party, somebody who was going to be the candidate for Idaho.

I ended up beating this candidate by nine points, and I thought, well, great, so now the party's going to get behind me. They're going to rally behind me, because you have a Hispanic immigration lawyer from Idaho who's going to be coming to Washington, D.C. And instead, what they did is they closed their doors. They, in fact, in NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] told the Idaho media that they were no longer interested in the race in Idaho, and they didn't think it was a potential race to win, so they moved on from Idaho.

I actually started fighting my own party before I even came to Congress, because what they did really effectively is they found a bunch of young, hungry people that wanted to come to Washington, D.C., to change Idaho. But they also indoctrinated them, and they put their arms around them and told them that "These are the things you must say to get elected. These are the things you must do to get elected. But when you come to Washington, D.C., you have to be part of this team, and you have to do what the team tells you." They were very effective at getting the Republicans, those 87, to pretty much fall in line as soon as we got here to Washington, D.C.

But that's not the reputation. The reputation of the 87, or a part of the 87, whatever that number is, was that they decided that they had come for a very specific reason, and it wasn't to go along with the rules; it wasn't to make sure that the leadership maintained control. It was to do what they said they were going to do when they got elected. Isn't that the case, or didn't that become the case?

That became the myth in some case, but what really happened was that a large portion of those 87 combined with people that were already here, that were trying to change what was happening in Washington. But the reality is that pretty early on, you started seeing people falling. You started seeing people say, "I'm going to do whatever leadership is going to tell us to do." The first big fight that we had was over spending. If you remember, the Pledge to America told us that we were pledging to the American people that we were going to cut spending by $100 billion in that first year. We get here to Washington, D.C., and John Boehner explains to us, "Well, really it's not $100 billion, because it's less than a year," and he started doing all these calculations, and by the end of the day, I think it was something like $32 billion that we were going to cut the first year. Several of us stood up, and we said: "Absolutely not. You made a pledge to the American people, and you're going to keep that pledge to the American people."

So what did that tell you right off the bat?

That people lie to get elected and people say different things to get elected. It was very disappointing as a new member of Congress to see that it wasn't even like they tried to justify it in good terms. It was all Washington speak about what a budget means, what the appropriations calendar means, and just pretty much treating us in a condescending way, that you guys don't understand what's really going on here. Let us be in charge, and you guys just sit in the back and just keep to yourselves.

So then the Grand Bargain takes place, and Boehner's sitting down, secretly at first, with the president. When do you first hear about that, and what's your attitude about that?

Well, it's not good, because as always, the Grand Bargain meant more taxation today with promises of future spending cuts. And that's what happens here in Washington, D.C.

What was the caucus's reaction? ... Take me to that moment when that was happening. What was Boehner seeing, and what was the caucus feeling?

Boehner's problem was that he was always talking to the same people. Boehner was--I always say that he would have been a good speaker in the '90s, maybe in the '80s. He was a good old boy that wanted to just talk to his small circle of friends; that members of Congress at the time understood that there was party discipline, and if the speaker wanted something, that's what was going to be done. But that's not what they had created with this class of 87. They had created a sort of, I believe, an expectation that we were going to change the way Washington was going to work. And several of us who came to Washington did not want to move away from that expectation. We thought, in a sense, that if we didn't do what we told the American people we were going to do, that the backlash was not going to be against the Democrats; the backlash was going to be against us as a party.

I'm going to jump ahead. The 2012 election, what were your feelings about the 2012 elections, the Romney-Ryan ticket? Was there disappointment in the way the party had gone?

I don't know that there was disappointment. I think Romney-Ryan were two very good candidates, but I don't think that Romney was somebody who understood the angst of the American people. He didn't understand what especially the Republicans throughout the United States were feeling, how disaffected they felt. I don't think he understood how they felt that the government was not listening to them anymore. I don't think he understood that our job is not to listen to Wall Street and not to listen to big industries, but our job should be to listen to the little guys in our small towns, the people who really feel that government just does not care for them anymore.

I think that's why he lost. He lost because there wasn't excitement for his campaign. I recall being in Florida, and I went to Florida for five days to campaign for Romney. I specifically went to talk to the Hispanic community in Florida, and this was several months before the election. Everyone was talking in the media about how Romney was going to win Florida, how things were going wonderful for the Romney campaign. The Romney campaign was running a masterful campaign, [but] there was no enthusiasm in the Hispanic community about Romney at all.

In fact, I went to a big megachurch, where there were thousands of evangelical Hispanics, and I spoke, and they introduced me and the other guest. When they introduced us as Republicans, everybody clapped, and everybody was happy. Then they said, "And he's here representing Romney," they booed us. This is an evangelical church in Florida in Orlando, and we got booed. I went home, and I told my wife: "Romney's going to lose. There's no way he can win Florida if the evangelical community of Hispanics in Orlando, Fla., is not with him. There's no way that he can win this election." It's because he kept talking to the business class and not talking to individuals who felt that they were disaffected.

After the election and Obama wins, what's the feeling in Washington? How is Congress viewing the White House? How is the White House viewing Congress? ... What's the mood in Washington at that point, and perhaps how the real caucus, the growing Tea Party Freedom Caucus folk are viewing the attitude of the leadership?

The attitude was immediately that we had done everything wrong because we were not Democrat enough. We didn't want to do immigration reform like the Democrats wanted to do immigration reform. We don't want to do spending like Democrats want to do spending. The attitude is pretty much the Chamber-of-Commerce attitude: Be right, but just a little right. Be conservative, but just a little bit conservative.

We understood that the American people were not with them in any way. One of the biggest fights was about immigration. I'm a former immigration lawyer who wants to do immigration reform, but when I listened to John Boehner talk about immigration, he had no idea, first, what was needed to fix the immigration system, and second, what the political dynamic of immigration was out in the public. And why is that? Because he only talked to his friends at the Chamber of Commerce. His friends at the Chamber of Commerce told him that we needed immigration reform, and we just needed a path to citizenship for all these people who are here illegally.

That's not what our voters elected us to do. That's not why they gave us the House by overwhelming majorities, and obviously it's not why they later gave us the Senate.

What did the voters elect you to do?

The voters elected us to secure the border. This is my opinion about immigration and many of these issues. The voters understood that there's millions of people who are here illegally in the United States. They want that inflow of illegal immigration to stop. Once that inflow stops, once we can seal the border, we can figure out what to do with the border. The American people are good people. They're willing to do something with the 12 million people. It might be short of a path to citizenship, but they're willing to do something that is fair with those people that are here in the United States.

But the mistake that the Democrats make, and especially the mistakes that our Republican leadership made, is thinking that all the American people care about is giving some pathway to the 12 million people. No, our party doesn't worry about the 12 million people. They worry about feeling less secure in their homes, less secure in the economy.

... In December of 2012, the Newtown shootings happen. ... There's a chance to push [gun reform legislation]. What was your point of view and [that of] some of the people that you were working closely with in the caucus?

It's one of the reasons that I think Obama has not been a very successful president when he has so much promise. He took every one of these moments of tragedy, these moments that could have been a unifying moment for the American people, to advance his political agenda. The country's very divided about guns, about gun control, about what it means, even what the Second Amendment means. We're a 50/50 country on this issue.

Every single time there's a tragedy of this magnitude, instead of unifying the public and bringing people together, he actually divides the public more by trying to advance a political agenda. He's done it every single time, and then I hearken back to his first speech that I heard where I was so inspired, where we're not a blue America, we're not a red America, we're a United States of America. He never took the opportunity to bring people together and to coalesce behind a theme of unity as a nation.

By pursuing this, did he blow basically an opportunity to move in other directions? By turning the attention toward this, did that diffuse in some way the strength that he had coming out of the election?

I think by 2012, he had already done that. I don't think it was that moment where he blew the opportunity. By 2012, he had failed to unify and to work with the Republican Congress. In fact, I remember the first time I went to the White House, the entire speech he gave us. He lectured the Republicans. I think it was in June of 2010. He invited all of the Republicans to go to Washington, to the White House. We went in, and he lectured us on how he was trying to do something good for America, but he didn't think that we were willing to work with him, and because we're not willing to work with him, he was going to have to do it on his own.

It was this really outrageous lecture that he gave us, and you have seen that theme in every State of the Union thereafter. The whole time that we have had control of the House and now the Senate, he has lectured us how he can't work with us because he must do everything alone because we're not willing to work with him. He's never found a way to unify the nation.

I put that in contrast to Bill Clinton. Look at Bill Clinton, who was being impeached by a Republican Congress, who was investigated by a Republican Congress, and he still found ways to bring people together and to work together on issues where they could get along.

We had welfare reform; we were able to balance the budget. We were able to do those things because he triangulated. He was able to move to the middle. Obama has never tried to move to the middle in any issue. With him, it has been my way or the highway every single time.

At the same time, in 2012, Boehner was trying to control you guys. He was purging people, taking them out of important [positions]. What was the reaction to Boehner and the Republican leadership?

We rejected it. The thing that Boehner never understood was that many of us came to Washington, D.C., not to get a title, not to become chairman of a committee or a subcommittee, not to be helped by the NRCC, not to have fundraisers, not to be invited to the right parties. We came to Washington, D.C., to change America, to change the trajectory of where government was going, to change the size of government, to shrink the size of government, to be more responsive to the American people. Boehner never understood that. He really was an old-school legislator, and I don't say that in a negative way. He was an old-school legislator in that he just thought his job was to manage all the things that were happening in the House, but he really didn't want to do anything transformational.

That's actually why I believe that Obama was able to beat him every time in negotiations, because Obama was a transformational figure. He wanted to transform America to his vision. Boehner never had any illusions of transforming America to any vision. He just wanted to make sure that he got re-elected. He wanted to make sure that he remained the speaker of the House and that every once in a while that the trains ran on time, and that was it.

So back to immigration. The Senate passes an immigration bill. The Gang of Eight comes up with something; it passes the Senate, and then it gets to the House. What's the view of what you guys are handed, and nothing happens? Why did nothing happen?

We rejected the Senate bill outright, and it was pretty simple. Some of us who are experts on immigration understood and remembered what happened in 1986 with the amnesty bill. If you recall the amnesty bill in 1986, Ronald Reagan was promised that if you grant amnesty to 3 million people that are here illegally that eventually we're going to have border security. So Reagan, even though he had some hesitations, he went ahead and signed the bill with the promise that the border security aspects of the bill were going to be put in place. That never happened. We granted the amnesty; we never did the border security.

... Did Boehner understand at this time that he could not win it and he actually had a different opinion? What were the dynamics?

He never understood that the Republican Conference was never going to do an amnesty bill. We would have done a border security bill that once the border is secure, it would lead to a legal pathway to the people that are here illegally, but we were not willing to put the cart before the horse. It was never going to happen. The conference was never with him, and the only way he could have passed it was by having every Democrat and maybe 20 or 30 Republicans vote for it.

... Did you ever talk to him about this?

I tried. I talked to him so many times. I tried to explain to him that I worked on immigration for 15 years. This was not just a passing fancy for me. It was not something that I just kind of knew a little bit about. I tried to explain to him that I understood how the immigration system works; I understood what needed to be reformed in the immigration system. I had worked with law enforcement to find out what we needed to do at the law enforcement level. And I also understood that my constituents back in Idaho, as the majority of our constituents in all of our Republican districts, would not stand for an amnesty bill that did not secure the border.

I guess it was October 2013 or so, Ted Cruz goes to the floor of the Senate, and he does the filibuster. They want to attach getting rid of Obamacare to a budget bill. What's your thinking at that time?

... That's a great question. It has always been misunderstood by the media. Ted Cruz had his filibuster in the Senate. He had the whole summer, he and Mike Lee had a series of events that talked about how we should use the funding mechanisms in the House to defund Obamacare. We in the House looked at what he was saying, but we thought that there was a better way than what he was trying to do. What he was trying to do is completely defund and repeal Obamacare through the appropriations process. We thought that was not possible. We knew that there was no way Obama would sign a bill that would get rid of his signature bill in exchange for just one year of funding.

What we decided to do in the House is to make Obama an offer. We said we will give you one year of funding in exchange for one year of delay of Obamacare. It was a one-for-one deal. That was all lost in the media because our great tactician, John Boehner, decided to give in to Ted Cruz and create this fake crisis that was all about defunding and repealing Obamacare instead of doing what I thought was the rational thing, which was telling the president: "Your law is not really ready for prime time. We are offering you one year of funding in exchange for you just waiting one year for Obamacare to come into play."

So how did we end up with the government closing down? What brings us to that point?

What brings us to that point is we did stand strong as a conference, and we said the Obamacare should not be funded, that it should not be funded. That's the only power that Congress has. There's a lot of things that we can do in Washington, D.C., but the two biggest powers that we have, inherent powers in the legislative body, are, number one, we're in charge of funding; and number two, we can impeach the president of the United States. There are very few other things that we can do. We're obviously not going to impeach the president for a difference in funding, but we could stop the funding of Obamacare, especially when many of us believed that Obamacare was not ready, that the promises that were made to the American people are not true, that the cost of Obamacare was going to be astronomical and the system was not prepared for people. We were found to be right in the end.

... The story that's out there is that Boehner didn't agree with the shutdown. He'd seen what had happened back in the Gingrich years and stuff, but he goes along with, I guess it was [Rep. Mark] Meadows' (R-N.C.) proposal on all this--

Correct.

--because he wants to teach a lesson to you guys.

Correct.

What happened?

That was Boehner's problem. He never understood even his own history. If you look back at the shutdown during the Newt Gingrich era, the shutdown led to some pretty big victories in the House. They also led to major legislation where we reformed the welfare system, we were able to bring the government together, we were able to balance the budget. All those things happened after the shutdown, and it's because Clinton finally took the speaker of the House seriously.

This president never took John Boehner seriously because John Boehner had no backbone. He would never stand up to the president. In fact, he spent all of his time attacking people like me, attacking the Freedom Caucus--well, there was no Freedom Caucus at that time, but attacking the conservatives in Congress instead of battling the president of the United States.

But the shutdown was seen as a big success by the Obama people?

It was seen as a big success, but I think history tells you something different. After the shutdown, yes our numbers went down during the shutdown; there's no question about that. But after the shutdown, when we had emphasized the mind of the American people on Obamacare, everything we said about Obamacare came to be true. We all of a sudden realized that the website wasn't working, that the programs weren't [doing] what they were supposed to do, that people were not going to be able to keep their health insurance like they were promised by Obamacare, that they weren't going to save $2,500 per family. And all of a sudden, if you look at the 2014 elections, the largest margins of victory in the House and in the Senate in a generation occurred.

If the shutdown was so destructive to the Republican Party, we should have lost the elections of 2014, and we didn't.

... Immigration doesn't happen. At this point, the president, also who had felt he wanted to get this accomplished the first time, now still was not getting it accomplished. Executive action is the direction he's going.

Correct.

So what does the caucus believe, think about, all of a sudden the White House deciding, "Hey, you know, I've lost the House; I've lost the Senate; I'm going to make some things happen here"?

Again, this is the divisive nature of this president. There were several of us who were working on immigration reform. I joined a group of eight people. Just like the Senate had a Group of Eight, we had a Group of Eight in the House. I was trying to work on a bipartisan basis on immigration reform, trying to do something that Republicans would be proud of, that actually took care of the border issues that we had. But this president never had the patience to let the legislative body actually do its work, so he would come to us and tell us, "You're going to do immigration reform, and if you don't do it, I'm going to do it through executive order."

He's done the same thing with sentencing reform. He tells us, "You're going to do sentencing reform, and if you don't do it, I'm going to start doing it," and has never allowed the legislative process to work its way.

But this was a president that was believing that this Congress couldn't get anything done. It was split among itself, that the leadership was divisive from the caucus itself.

It doesn't matter. It's not the president's prerogative to make law. He's supposed to be a constitutional expert; he's supposed to be a constitutional lawyer who actually lectured on constitutional law. But he never understood the difference between the executive and the legislative branch. He believes that he gets to dictate to Congress what we must do, and if we don't do it, then he just gets to do it anyway. That's not the way our Founding Fathers intended the government to work. That's not the way that it has worked for the last 200 years.

But in his mind, he thinks he's right, because it's something that he wants, and he does not have the patience to work with the legislative branch.

By 2015, the Freedom Caucus rises up. Just explain the importance, who the Freedom Caucus is, what the goals are and why it's important.

You have to go back to the 2012 elections. When we lost the White House, there was a lot of disappointment with conservatives in the House, because we thought it was an election that we could win. It was something that if the right presidential candidate with the right message about talking about the little guy would have won the nomination, that we should have beaten Obama.

The economy was in shambles; the economy was bad for all Americans. In fact, if you looked at every metric in the 2012 election, the American people were with us on all the issues except for one; they believed that Barack Obama cared about people like them more than Mitt Romney cared about people like them. So we thought our job was to let the American people know that we care about you. We care about the little guy; we care about individuals.

So instead, we come to Washington, D.C., right after the election, and we're told that there's an "autopsy," that all of a sudden the Republican Party has decided that the reason we lost the election is because we didn't listen to Hispanic voters enough and we were not liberal enough on immigration.

Some of us were flabbergasted, because we knew who those talking points were coming from. Those talking points were coming from the Chamber of Commerce. We knew that after this election, this whole election cycle, where we wasted an entire election, that they were still not listening to the American people. Something that's been, I think, poorly reported, not only did we lose the presidency, not only did we lose the Senate, we actually lost the House in 2012. People are going to think, what? We got 1 million less votes in the House as Republicans than the Democrats. The only difference was that we were gerrymandered in a way that we couldn't lose or seats. But we actually lost. We lost the House by a million votes. That's how bad the 2012 election was.

But the lesson wasn't learned?

The lesson wasn't learned. In fact, they thought the lesson was to lean into the Chamber of Commerce, lean into that anti-population--anti-small business ideas.

But the strength of the Freedom Caucus is fascinating because the numbers are not that big, but people have told us that there would be a caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol building, and there would be a question of directions to go, and people would come up to the few, the Freedom Caucus folks, and say: "What does the base say? I don't want to get in trouble here. I don't want to lose the next election." Describe the strength and why you guys had that.

... Several of us realized that the Republican Study Committee was no longer the conscience of the party, so I started talking about forming a new group. Many of my friends disagreed with me. They thought that we could reform the Republican Study Committee, not actually form a new group. We saw throughout the election process that leadership was owning everything that happened with the Republican Study Committee. The talking points from the Republican Study Committee were more like the talking points from the leadership.

After the 2014 election, nine of us got together, and we said: "Enough is enough. Let's start a group that actually listens to the people back home, that actually has a good feeling for what the people back home want to do. Let's no longer belong to the other group, or if you do, that's not going to be your most active part in Congress."

... So Sept. 25, 2015, you have a conversation with Speaker Boehner. Tell us about that. Tell us what that was.

Remind me what conversation.

This was when you told him that you believed that the Republicans couldn't win the presidency with him as speaker.

John Boehner asked a group of us to come in and speak to him about what was happening with the motion to vacate, and we explained to him that this was Mark Meadows acting on his own who decided to file the motion to vacate, that it was not [a] Freedom Caucus initiative; this is not something that we had planned to do, but that there was so much frustration that Mark Meadows believed that it was time for the Speaker to go.

And he asked us, "Well, will you vote for that motion if it's brought on the floor?" And we said: "Absolutely. If that's actually called to a vote, every member of the Freedom Caucus will vote for it. But not just us--many members of the House are going to see themselves forced to vote for it." We also explained to him that the American people were getting to a point of such large disappointment that if he continued to be the speaker of the House that we were going to lose the presidential election.

So what does he do?

He listened. It was one of the best conversations I had with him. He started talking about many other issues. He talked to all the people who were in the room. And then he just said, "Thank you," and just let us go on our way. I had a feeling at the meeting that he was going to resign, but it wasn't something that he said specifically. He almost had an air of resignation about him, that he just understood what his fate was going to be and that he knew what the next step needed to be.

When did you find out he was going to resign?

The next day.

... Were you surprised?

I was not surprised. I have never had any ill will toward John Boehner. I think John Boehner is a good man who was trying to do the right things according to his dictate and his conscience. I just thought that he was not the man for the times. I just thought that he wasn't quite ready to take on Barack Obama, take on the strong Democratic Party. John Boehner's biggest weakness is actually his biggest strength. His biggest weakness is that he assumes the other side is negotiating in good faith like you're negotiating in good faith. And he never understood that the other side was trying to fundamentally change America in a way that when Barack Obama said in his speeches that he was trying to fundamentally change America, that wasn't just a, you know, just part of a speech, that was something that he truly believed. He was never a good match for Barack Obama.

Before all this happened, one of the things I stepped over was the fact that Cantor also lost his primary election.

Correct.

People sort of pointed to that as, number one, an enormous surprise in Washington. Eric Cantor seemed to be the guy that was working with the Freedom Caucus beforehand, or had been.

Yes. There was no Freedom Caucus yet.

Right. But before the Freedom Caucus, he was the one that helped bring a lot of the 87 in.

Correct.

What happened, and what were the effects of that defeat?

It was a surprise, I think, to everybody. That race wasn't even on the radar of any person who was in Congress. I remember I was sitting at the Capitol Hill Club eating dinner, and I get a text from somebody that Eric Cantor is losing his primary. I was just shocked as anybody else. I actually had a really good relationship with Eric Cantor. He had tried to take me under his wing. In spite of not helping me during my primary and running the general election, he tried to help me and to work with me. I had a very good working relationship with him.

What I liked the most about him is how honest he was with me. He and I had a lot of discussions and a lot of debates, and he would tell me when he thought I was right, and he would tell me when he thought I was wrong. He was very good at working with people like me.

Some say he lost because he became, after the elections, previous elections, he had become more of a supporter of Boehner's direction. He was too connected to the immigration reform?

I think there's a lot of reasons, and I don't think there's any one reason. I think he did become too close to Boehner. I think he made the mistake on immigration, that he thought he would meet the Democrats halfway thinking that his base would be OK with that. I also think when you're in leadership, you spend a lot of time away from your district, and I really think that's the biggest reason he lost. I think his district did not see him as often as they wanted to see him. But I don't know that I would put any one thing on his loss.

The White House's point of view on all this is that Boehner wanted a negotiator. The president felt that Boehner was somebody he could negotiate with, but that Boehner lost control of the caucus and that basically the caucus would not allow the leaders to negotiate; that democracy in America is all based on the fact of compromise. The way it's told by the White House is that the group of 87, what became the Freedom Caucus, just would not compromise. Boehner though wanted compromise. The party, the caucus itself, blew up upon itself.

Boehner always told this joke, and I think it's very appropriate. He always said you can't be a leader if no one is following, and Boehner never understood that no one was following; that the people in the caucus were not with him on the issues of the day; that the people today, the Republican Party today, needed a fighter in that position, somebody who would stand up to the president. In fact, Eric Cantor could have been that person. He's much more moderate than I am on politics, but I think for sometime he had a stiff upper lip. He had a tough backbone.

Something happened to Eric Cantor where he lost that, and I can't tell you what it was. But that's why some of us thought that maybe Cantor would be a good replacement to Boehner, because he knew how to negotiate, he knew how to compromise, but he knew how to negotiate from a position of strength. Boehner never negotiated from a position of strength.

Did the Freedom Caucus get stronger afterward? [Kevin] McCarthy is also defeated ... What did that show? What does it say now about the GOP Caucus?

McCarthy won his race for majority leader; he defeated me in his race for majority leader. But when he tried to move up to speaker of the House, we just said that that was not going to happen. Again, it's no ill will toward McCarthy. We needed somebody who was going to be speaker of the House who could lead the conference in a way where he could be somebody standing against President Obama, or any other person who's going to be president of the United States.

Where are we today? What is the whole [Justice Antonin] Scalia death and the president nominating someone and that just being frozen in the Congress? What does that say about the affairs between the executive [branch] and the Congress today?

I think it was the right thing to do. One of the most interesting things that happened, Mitch McConnell--you know, it was funny to watch the process where there were all these stories being written about how the Freedom Caucus after Boehner left was no longer relevant and was no longer strong, and one of the first things that Mitch McConnell did after Scalia died is he came to talk to the leadership of the Freedom Caucus because he wanted to make sure that we had his back on his decision to hold off on going through the process with the new nominee, and he wanted to make sure that the conservative wing of the party actually understood that he was trying to do the right thing. He implored us to go out there and get that message out.

It was something we could agree with him on, because he's doing the right thing. This is fundamentally going to change the course of the Supreme Court. It's now a divided court that is 4-4, and I think we need to wait for the next election to decide who that fifth vote, either way, is going to be. I think he was doing the right thing. And he understood that he needed the conservatives to get behind him so he could explain it to the American people.

So you look at the last eight years, or will be eight years, and the president came in with the 2004 speech through the election when he got elected in 2008 saying that he was going to bridge the divide. He was going to be the post-partisanship president. ... How do you view that inability to live up to that promise?

I think it was a tremendous missed opportunity. Could I read something?

Yeah.

When I first got elected on, like I told you, we were invited to go to the White House, and I was really disappointed with that White House meeting. I sent a letter to the president on June 29 of 2011, and I said: "Three weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a meeting at the White House with my fellow Republicans to discuss our financial crisis. I was encouraged by this invitation because I believe that finding a solution that ends our spending binge while protecting jobs is a worthy, nonpartisan goal. Mr. President, I emerged from the meeting more than a little disappointed. In particular, you said that you have not proposed an alternative to our budget and debt plan because you knew that Republicans would simply object based on political considerations."

Then I explained how we could actually work together. I went through three different things that we could work on together. I said that I was hopeful that we could have a moment like Bill Clinton had, and I said that we could work on burdensome regulations, which he thought were also burdensome. I thought that we could work on spending cuts together, and we could work on tax reform, that there were areas that we could come together.

But I concluded with this. I said: "In 1994, no one got everything they wanted. Partisan bickering did not cease to exist. I can still point to Clinton-era policies that I believe are devastating to the West, but the greater point was that on many of the important economic issues, leaders on both sides of the aisles staked their reputations and futures on bold action. Republicans in this Congress have stepped forward with bold actions of their own, and I respect your opposing viewpoint. But I would rather be arguing two years from now over who should get the credit for an economic turnaround as our predecessors did in 1996. Without your engagement, I'm afraid in two years we will simply be arguing on who gets the blame."

I never received a response from the president. He never called me and said: "What is it that you would agree to do? If you don't agree with my plan, what are the things that we have in common?" In fact, I never got that invitation. I did get an invitation much later on criminal justice reform, but on that big issue, that I think is what we all came here to Washington to do, to make sure that our economy's stable, that we can actually reduce the debt, reduce the deficit, balance the budget. He was not interested because he was more interested in partisan bickering because he knew it would benefit him as an individual. It did not benefit his party at all. They lost in major ways. But it benefited him every single time.

... How do you connect up the story we've just been talking about, especially inside the Republican Party, with what happened in the primaries and with the defeat of Jeb Bush and the success of Donald Trump?

... I think the most telling thing about why I believe my opinion and my version of events is correct is the rise of Donald Trump. The Republican Party, if you looked at every single state that had a primary, over 60 percent of the Republicans felt that they had been betrayed by the Republican Party. That's a word that--I don't know if that means much to people that are watching this. But betrayal is not disappointment; it's not just that they were upset. That's a visceral reaction where somebody feels that the party told you one thing and they did something else. That's what we started warning John Boehner and our leadership from the first day I went to Washington, D.C.: If you don't listen to the base, they're going to reject you completely and 100 percent.

Well, that's what the party did. This time, they decided to completely reject the Republican Party. Not even Ted Cruz--if you think about it, Ted Cruz is one of us. Ted Cruz is a conservative person who came to Washington, D.C., to change, and the party felt that even he was too tainted because he was a sitting senator; that the party was so bad that they wanted a complete outsider, who ironically has never been a Republican, has never been a conservative, has never really stood for all the things and all the fights that we have been fighting for.

But what the American people, especially Republicans, feel is that they either want to fix Washington, D.C., or they want to blow it up, and they don't care what Trump does. He's either going to fix it, or he's going to blow it up, and they're OK with that.