The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Tim Huelskamp

R-Kan.

Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) is a former U.S. Congressman who over six years in office came to represent the split inside the GOP between establishment Republicans and members of the more conservative Tea Party and Freedom Caucus wings of the party.

Huelskamp was among the 87 Republican freshmen who won election in 2010 by riding a wave of populist anger to victory. In office, he clashed regularly with party leaders. In 2012, Speaker of the House John Boehner stripped Huelskamp of his seat on the Agriculture Committee to punish him for his votes against party leadership. Three years later, the Kansas congressman helped engineer Boehner's ouster from Congress.

"On key issues of the day where Republicans claim to be conservative, that's where the difference was between conservatives and the establishment," Huelskamp says in the below interview. "The establishment Republicans really had no desire to fight on many of these issues ... But I think as we fast forward into the future, you see a growing frustration with Republicans across America about the folks in Washington [who] say they are going to do something, but somehow they just never get it done."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Sept. 27, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

... Take us to the 2012 election. What was the meaning of that, and how does the caucus look at it first?

The lead-up to the 2012 election was approximately two years of saying, "We can't do anything until we win the presidency." That was the mantra. That's what we said. And we kept pushing back, pushing back; let's try to do something. The end of the day I think we lost in part in 2012 because we didn't stand for much of anything other than not being the president of the United States, and that certainly wasn't enough to win. But what's stunning [is] that immediately after that, you had Paul Ryan on the ticket and all these folks in the establishment, thrilled to death with [Mitt] Romney as our nominee. Instead of going after the folks who lost, they begin to attack conservatives in the conference, myself included.

Within about a month they kicked four of us off our committees. They sent out the message on K Street that you don't support conservatives. Again, conservatives had suggested that we push more on our principles. But what was lost was a bad candidate and a bad nominee and a ticket the certainly didn't show much excitement. That was the difference. Republicans had a chance to represent something different than the status quo. ...

What were [John] Boehner's intentions when he made that power play?

... John Boehner was a creature of the establishment. At the end of the day, his goal was to control the House. It wasn't to actually make policy. In many ways, I don't know there were many policies John Boehner really wanted to pass. He just wanted to manage the House, and somehow that was good enough.

But for myself and many others in the class of 2010 and 2012, we wanted to make a difference. We came up here not to get a job, get a position, but to make a difference in Washington. That was much different from, I think, a lot of the other classes. We were not a professional class of politicians, even though many of us had a history of that. We were looking to change and make a difference in Washington, D.C.

How successful was his message that he was sending, that attempt to gain control over you rowdy freshmen or sophomores at that point, whatever?

I think initially it was successful for John Boehner. It was unprecedented to kick four sitting members off their committees. ... But if you look a little more closely at what did occur, it wasn't just four of us. There were literally dozens of conservatives that were not allowed to advance, not allowed to become subcommittee chairmen or even chairmen of committees. I remember hearing a story from one of the leading pro-lifers, longtime leading pro-lifers and not conservative on other issues, was told by the speaker of the House, "You don't get to be chairman of this committee because you're too pro-life."

Again, on key issues of the day where Republicans claim to be conservative, that's where the difference was between conservatives and the establishment. The establishment Republicans really had no desire to fight on many of these issues. ... But I think as we fast-forward into the future, you see a growing frustration with Republicans across America about the folks in Washington [who] say they are going to do something, but somehow they just never get it done.

And the blowback on Boehner?

I think for a while there was not much blowback. He picked out strategically four folks to target. But at the end of the day, that actually created some free agents. At the end of the day, I don't work for John Boehner. The other three members--for three of us, actually, we continued to push back against John Boehner for a long time. ... The idea was to scare Republicans and to target and mark those of us. But on the outside, the grassroots began to say: "Well, who is John Boehner? What's he doing up there? They just told us for two years we couldn't mess up anything because we are going win in 2012, and then we lost."

Actually, I think that began the process for the grassroots saying: "Enough is enough. John Boehner represents 25 years of the establishment. It's time to change him out as well."

After that 2012 election, the Republican leadership looks at the results of the election and says, "Do the 'autopsy.'" And they say, one of the things we had to deal with is immigration reform. We finally got a deal with immigration reform. How did the caucus see that turn by leadership? And was that a mistake? We there a debate between the sides?

The purge by John Boehner occurred in December. Again, it was unprecedented. It was an attack. We fought for a month over that, asking John Boehner, pushing John Boehner, often through conservative media: "Show us why you punished four conservatives. They have great records." It actually came down to the fact that we voted conservative, much more than John Boehner. But then fast-forward to January, and you're talking about the autopsy. Some time in December an autopsy was released on Capitol Hill, what Republicans need to do in order to win: We need to be more like the Democrats. And that was a summary of the autopsy.

But then we went to the Republican retreat, and they brought in eight pollsters, interestingly enough, to say, "Hey, this is what Republicans need to do to win in 2014 and then win in 2016." And by the way, Trump never came [up] at that discussion. But seven of those eight pollsters, interestingly enough, had gotten the election wrong. Seven out of eight had predicted Romney would win. On the day of [the] election, they were wrong. There was only one, actually one pollster out of the eight, who actually got it right, and that is actually Kellyanne Conway, who is Trump's pollster now. It was interesting.

They brought in folks that not only lost the election but have lost elections before and before and say, "Hey, this is how you can win." Again, it is always a miserable, failed strategy, looking back and bringing folks forward to present an autopsy when these same folks couldn't get the election figured out just a few months before that.

So what happens next is the president also feels that he needs to move forward on immigration. The focus is all on the Senate. The House is ignored.

I would say on the immigration, the response in that retreat was: "We don't want to do that. We want to secure the border. We want a five-step approach." And they kind of gave lip service to that. But behind the scenes, the Senate is still working for it. That's in front of the scenes. And that's about the time Marco Rubio disappeared from conservative circles up here because he was working behind the scenes on this Gang of Eight.

I think John Boehner was involved in that, and I think Paul Ryan was involved in that in a way, pushing that as well. But at that retreat, Republicans did not want to go down the route that Barack Obama and the Gang of Eight and our leadership wanted to do.

And the view that the Senate would push it forward--the numbers would be big enough, and the House would just have to go along. This was the view of the White House. How mistaken were they, and why? What was the situation with Boehner and [Eric] Cantor and those in leadership about what was actually occurring?

I think that probably was the strategy. It is kind of hard to figure that out, because they were not open with the caucus, which created innumerable problems for John Boehner. He wanted to be open and transparent that he wasn't particularly on this. And Paul Ryan was involved in this and plenty of others for the open borders, the Chamber of Commerce and those kinds of things. But I think they were moving forward. But when you had the primary election loss of Eric Cantor in Virginia, that just put everything in screeching halt, and I think that ended their plans. But I think they fully expected sometime after the 2014 election to do a lame-duck immigration, comprehensive immigration reform that most people didn't want, [that] nobody would campaign on and try to rush that through.

What was the message sent when Cantor lost that primary?

You can almost feel the Capitol shake. I certainly wasn't a friend with Eric Cantor, but I've never seen so many people crying with long faces, all upset on Capitol Hill. Part of it is people that had known him. But you had the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You had all these major corporations had put all their eggs in that basket because this is what they wanted. They wanted this more than the presidency. They wanted this more than getting control of the Senate. They were going to force through immigration reform.

Then when Cantor was beat and defeated, it just ended everything. That's the worst drubbing the establishment has had in many years. And they came back with a ferocious attack back on me and others as we move forward. But here is the history. In 2010, the establishment takes the mantle of the Tea Party and the conservatives and says, "Hey, we are going to do that, Pledge to America." 2012 they ran on that again, and then they lost, because nobody believed Mitt Romney really wanted to repeal Obamacare and many other things.

Then they turn around and start going after conservatives. ... But I think what many people began to become disillusioned with, they said, "We thought the Republican establishment agreed with the grassroots conservatives." They tend to agree with the president of the United States more on immigration, more actually on Obamacare.

At the end of the day, the shutdown discussion in 2013 was, "Where is the establishment really at?" That was John Boehner's last attempt to say, "Hey, I'm really with you." And for about, what was it, 18 days, he said, "Yeah, I'm with you." But when the time [came] to pull the plug, that was the end of that debate.

... He saw the closing down of the government and the failure of it as a slap on the hand of the conservatives, folks like you. He saw it also as a way to move forward on immigration. That's the way it's been reported. Is that the way you see it?

I'm not for sure what he saw. I mean, he says different things. He said different things during those days of the shutdown, and he would suggest different things. But I will tell you the most united Republicans have ever been is when we have actually pushed conservative ideas and principles and causes, and not that those have to lead to a shutdown. But at the end of the day I think most Republicans across America, particularly those that ended up being Trump voters, they said at the end of the day we think Obama believes in his principles more than John Boehner believes in his, and I think they're right, because John Boehner has lost in every showdown with the president of the United States, like 2012.

At the end of the year, the biggest tax increase in American history, according to Paul Ryan, who voted for it, was the lame-duck deal of Obama and Boehner after the election. So he punishes conservatives, and then he goes and negotiates a big deal with the president of the United States that conservatives and the majority of the Republican Conference, I think, opposed at that time, because it was a big tax increase.

... You're talking about a very divided GOP Caucus. How damaging is that to the ability to govern?

The division, though, I think, comes from the John Boehner side of the caucus. If you look at, I believe it was 10 times--it could be one more or one less; I can't remember exactly--I think it was about 10 times that John Boehner got together with Nancy Pelosi and passed major legislation over the opposition of a big majority of his caucus. That was very divisive. Every time he did that, that created problems for him. Like I said, we were most unified when we acted as Republicans.

Now, I think folks back home in Kansas, across the county, they understand the difference between trying and failing. But at the end of the day, they usually saw John Boehner's not even trying at all and then failing to deliver on something. And Eric Cantor actually tried to mislead many folks on this. He said, "Well, you know, Republicans, Tea Party, conservatives and all stripes of conservative overpromised and underdelivered."

But I always go back to the Pledge to America, which was put together by Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor and all their consultants on K Street that work with them. They're the ones that promised we could repeal Obamacare. Those are the ones that promised we'd pass the new tax code. Actually, they promised all kinds of things, but they never delivered. So here you have Eric Cantor put it together say, "Well, you guys expected too much." No, the expectation level was raised during campaigns by the establishment. ...

... There are a lot of different theories by different people about where does Donald Trump come from. Donald Trump is not the normal GOP candidate for president of the United States. Some people say it was the divide in the caucus, that no one could deal with each other. Some people say it's the anger that was in the grassroots because of the fact that the things that were promised were not delivered on. Some people say it's the anger with Obama. ... Give us an understanding of where did Donald Trump come from.

I think it's a creation of the failure of the GOP establishment of the donor class, which is interesting for a billionaire, [to] be the alter ego of the establishment that's controlled this town, together with the Democrats. You see these failures in which the grassroots felt, rightly felt--myself felt and many others--that they were left at the altar by the Tea Party way that put John Boehner in office. I think Donald Trump is a reaction. The movement is a reaction and a creation of the GOP establishment because they refused to deliver.

... At the end of the day, the environment was created by the failures of John Boehner's leadership and the weak-kneed Senate. They cannot even identify a leader over there. I think the reaction was: "You guys are not getting anything done. Anybody can do better than what's going on in Washington at that time."

And the use of immigration, why does he home in on immigration?

That is a question I cannot answer. There are numerous issues that you could look at at that point in time where the GOP establishment, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and all these folks, are just out of touch with working, average American men and women, folks trying to put their kids through college, getting by on a minimum-wage job. To have a billionaire understand that better than all these pollsters in Washington, if you look at the autopsy they put together--but I think the immigration issue is one that struck right at the heart of it. It got to the issue of wages. It got to the issue of unfairness. It got to the issue of those folks in Washington, of not trusting them. In a way, I think he got lucky he picked that issue.

... Where is the GOP after this election? You've got a very divided caucus. You've gone through very hard times, very dramatic differences of opinion. You've got a candidate who is at odds in some very important ways with conservative doctrine as well as liberal doctrine. He's sort of--you're never quite sure where he's going. What does that do to this Grand Old Party? How is it evolving? How is it changing?

Well, I guess in the last year there's been a choice between someone who never articulated conservative principles, i.e., Donald Trump, versus a bunch of folks in Washington who said they were conservative but never voted that way, never delivered.

... There is a huge divide, and sometimes it is not on issue. A lot of it's class, and if you look through the Republican primary, the candidates that the end, last two or three or five that were left, they are all outsiders, outside of Washington. ...

...When Boehner is tossed, what [are] your thoughts, the cause of it? Surprising?

I wasn't surprised that it happened. It was a question of when it did. Actually, there were a few of us that were predicting something could happen the week the pope was here. That's one thing I actually said privately, that that was really an emotional time for him. But the idea that John Boehner still had his job, he'd left on his own accord, that certainly wasn't true at all. He was gone. Any time it would have taken place, he would have been removed. The only question was who to replace him with. That was the only question among Republicans. It wasn't a majority of the conference, but it was enough to get together and make sure and deny him 218.

How does it define the power of the Freedom Caucus at that point, and is this new movement fed out of Tea Party folks beforehand and the freshman folks from 2010?

... It's a testament to how out of touch the establishment was. I think John Boehner felt he was comfortable for a long time. And if there's one thing John Boehner could do, it was count votes. But he woke up one morning and said, "My gosh, I don't have the votes anymore." But you have to imagine the way the speaker operates and how many people in Washington, they have a bubble around [them], particularly the speaker--probably a worse bubble than the president of the United States. It's hard to break through that.

But for years, people have been around John Boehner said: "Hey, you're doing the right thing. Don't worry about those crazy people out there." At the end of the day, the folks that he punished became the ones that turned him out, actually. I remember walking down the hallway and Democrats come up to me, Democrats as well, they started calling me "Speaker Slayer." I didn't assume that title; that's what they had given to me. But it was just this frustration with Washington. In a way, that, for the establishment probably thought ... John Boehner will be the scalp and move on. But then next, here comes Donald Trump. And they never expected that. ...

...[What is] the importance of the Freedom Caucus?

I think it's critical. In terms of representing what gets lost in Washington, you can get a pollster that says this and says that, but at the end of the day, I think every member of the Republican Conference, maybe give two or three, all of us, they all run as conservatives. They all do. The problem is what they do up here. So it's always this dance. Well, I'm going to [go] home and say, "I'm a conservative," come up here and then say, "Hey, just wait; we can't do anything on this right now."

Comprehensive tax reforms [are] I think a great example. I think it's a great issue. Taking on the IRS is part of that as well. People hate the tax code. They hate the IRS. They're tired of giving money to Washington. Since I've been up here for six years, every year we're going to work on the tax code. I just saw a Ways and Means Committee member quoted in the paper a couple of weeks ago, says: "You know what? We'll probably do that in about five years from now." Politically that makes no sense, but in Washington, D.C., it makes perfect sense.

That's one thing Donald Trump really has been clear about is getting all those folks, because it is a tax code for insiders. It is a tax code for the biggest corporations in the world. And I'm a conservative. I'm for free markets. But up here it is exactly the opposite. If you want a market, you go to K Street, and you purchase one through a lobbyist. So that's just one of those issues with conservatives, where it's good politically, but in Washington, D.C., you just can't get it off the ground.

It's been reported that the Freedom Caucus was very much against immigration reform, and one of the things, that there was a deal made with Ryan that we would support you as long as you stipulate the immigration reform is not going to be done. Is that true?

... I don't think it was as important as making certain that we can hold the speaker accountable. It was definitely part of that. It's part of folks, conservatives that are not members of the House Freedom Caucus. I'm chairman of the Tea Party Caucus. We had our own meeting with Paul Ryan, and numerous things came up there, Conservative Opportunity Society, the Republican Study Committee. But I will tell you, comprehensive immigration reform was--about a fourth of the caucus might have wanted to do that of Republicans. And who knows? They might try to do that at the end of the year or whenever a speaker is at the last few months of his days.

It was part of it, but I wouldn't think it was the main deal. But clearly, Paul Ryan wants comprehensive immigration reform. He's in the open borders crowd. U.S. Chamber wants to do that. The big donor class wants to do that. That's what they probably look at Donald Trump and hate the most is that's not where he can go or wants to go is this comprehensive immigration reform.

I mean, this was a Congress that at one point, there were 150 votes on the Republican side to go for the Gang of Eight on the House side immigration proposal, and today Donald Trump is lambasting everything that would have been part of that bill. How does that happen so quickly? What does that say?

Two words: Eric Cantor. The first goal of almost every member of Congress, almost every member--I'm not saying that I'm putting myself in that category--is to win re-election. You can't just tell the base in a primary; I don't care what you think on immigration. That's what they would be telling. [There are] plenty of other issues as well, which they should be scared about. That's one of those issues, afraid they would lose re-election because the people don't want it.

July of last year, we put together at least the first two points of a five-step plan, and we passed that, and we were very unified as a conference and went home. That was very hopeful. But it's not what the Washington K Street folks want. They want to do the deal and do amnesty. Whether they call it that or not--but it's interesting, because that's probably the issue where the establishment and the insiders and the donor class was most divided from the rest of America.

They thought it was going to save the GOP.

They might have thought that. It's hard to tell what they really believe. Remember, when they brought all these pollsters in to say, "Hey, this is what you need to do," I remember Kellyanne Conway was the only one who actually was right in their polling. The other seven that were giving advice were wrong, and we were looking and saying, "Why do you have all these people over here that just can't do the job right?"

... Your loss in the primary, what's the lesson to be learned out of it? It seems to me, Boehner in the end succeeded in--your loss of your role in the Agriculture Committee was pretty much the thing that did you in.

What did me in was millions of dollars of out-of-state super PAC spending by the donor class. They put a target on my back. And one of the super PACs that spent almost $1 million against me also helped Hillary win Iowa. They went after Trump in the primary. And that's not a conservative group. But it's interesting the way they attack and attack the other conservatives is to accuse me of not being a conservative. Again, that's very dishonest. It was about $2 million total spending against me from outside PACs, so it's actually a $5 million primary.

... In my case, in a primary, they were able to convince 100,000 folks to go vote against the guy because he's the insider, even though everybody in Washington knows exactly that Tim Huelskamp is the ultimate outsider, and you can look at what he's done, how he has voted. ...

Obama came in with the idea that he was the bridge maker between all factions. Partisanship in Washington was shutting down Washington. He was going to change it. He didn't seem to succeed very well. The White House blames the Republican Caucus. They say that the conservative side of the Republican Caucus prevented Boehner from doing deals and stuff.

... I think I'm not alone, and across America and conservatives up here, but people across America, they get worried when Washington says, "We've made a special deal for you." We're almost $20 trillion in debt, and for the last eight years--well, let's go to the last six years, but eight years of the presidency, and two of them are full of Democrat control. It's kind of hard to say that President Obama was interested in bipartisanship in 2009 and 2010 when they passed Obamacare. Clearly very partisan.

I've been much changed. I wasn't here during that time period, but I'm looking at what happened and what passed. I don't think the White House was too interested in bipartisanship when they controlled the House and the Senate. Eventually they lost that and control of those things because of that. ... You know, it's not a matter of Washington getting along; it's a matter of Washington doing what the people want. And that's where Donald Trump comes in and says: "You know what? It's not about bipartisanship. The people, they want to build a wall, you build a wall, you know?"

But you only have to roll back to six years ago, the last time John McCain ran for re-election. They [were] saying the same thing Donald Trump was saying. Remember, we are going to build this blankety-blank wall. Nobody gave John McCain a hard time after he won re-election on the claim. And six years later, that wins the nomination in part for Donald Trump. But the point is, I think Donald Trump hasn't got the memo from the insiders: "Donald, you say that during a campaign, but then you do things differently in Washington." That is what we will see if and when Donald Trump is president. ... That will be whether he takes the same old route or he does something new, actually follows through and keeps his campaign promises.

Is there any other point that you want to make? You're in this perfect position. You've been here. You're out, for now. You've seen all this develop in this time. You must leave with some sort of thoughts about what this place has become, how you've seen it evolve in a very short amount of time that you were here.

I don't know if it's evolved or changed that much. At the end of the day, since Republicans have controlled the House, the Constitution says the purse strings are in the hands of the House of Representatives. There has been $5.5 trillion added to our nation's debt.

Donald Trump likes to talk about what was added during the Obama two terms. Well, John Boehner and Paul Ryan were speakers for five out of six of those eight years, and people look at Washington and say, "Well, what difference does it make who's running the show up there?"

So they can see a candidate that says, "I'm going to do this, going to do that." You have people in Washington and people in the mainstream media say, "Well, you can't believe what he's saying," and people saying, "We don't believe what anybody is saying up there anyway." And there is a little entertainment value, but at the end of the day, Republicans were the ones that promised to be fiscal conservatives. It wasn't Barack Obama and his folks, in my mind. So I think this time in the primaries, all the Republicans were held accountable for the failures to follow through. ...

You're sort of over. So 2014, the Senate goes. Obama no longer has the House. He doesn't have the Senate. He's kind of freed up in a way. And he turns to executive action. How do people in the caucus sort of view that?

Well, 2014, we talked that that was coming before the election. And we talked really loud what they were going to do. And they made all these promises, and even Mitch McConnell, still promising what he was going to do about Obamacare -- rip it up piece by piece or whatever he said ... But at the end of the day, they did the worst possible thing when John Boehner and Paul Ryan and McCarthy decided they were going to hold up our priorities and fund the presidents' in that deal, dealing with the executive amnesty issue.

One could look at that on the outside. If you are on the inside and say, well, maybe they wanted to lose that thing because there are plenty of other tools in the toolbox. Every Republican knew that was coming after the election. There were no surprises. The ones that were surprised, I guess was leadership staff claiming, well, we didn't expect that. Well, we all talked about it. So that was a point to note as well, how Obama is freed up. But in a way, I think there were quite a few Republicans, including John Boehner who were secretly half cheering with the president. If we can't get it done through these Republicans and through the Republican base, we'll just blame it all on the president and let him do it.

And I think it was Republican conservatives [who say], wait a minute, we've got to push back ... And so it's been time and time again that Republicans draw a line in the sand and then threaten that if we don't agree with them, then they are going to walk over the red line in the sand, and again and again. So at the end of the day, I think that led Donald Trump to say, hey, you know what? You may not like what I say. You may like it. But at the end, I'm going to say something and you are going to maybe be able to hold me accountable, unlike what you've done with these Republican majorities for years in Washington.