“I have no interest in playing spoiler. When I run for something, I run to win,” the Michigan Republican told The Hill on Wednesday as he descended the steps of the Capitol toward his office.
“I haven’t ruled anything out,” Amash replied when asked if he’s made a decision about a possible presidential bid.
But if he does run, some of his GOP colleagues worry that the five-term Libertarian-leaning congressman from Grand Rapids could siphon tens of thousands of votes away from Trump in a general election, potentially moving Rust Belt states that Trump won in 2016 — such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — into the Democratic column next year.
Some Republicans acknowledged that an Amash candidacy could be enough to hand the White House to the Democratic nominee, be it former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or someone else.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) said a third-party bid by Amash “could screw things up.”
“I respect Libertarians, I like them a lot. But it doesn’t take away from the Democrats. It will take away from the conservative viewpoint and that hurts our side,” LaMalfa said. “You guys want to elect Biden or Crazy Bernie, then that’s the way to do it.
“I don’t have anything against him, but when people do this stuff, all it does is tear down the ability of Republicans to unite,” he added. “Maybe it’s some sort of vendetta against Trump.”
Some GOP colleagues close to Amash, 39, predict he ultimately will not challenge Trump next year.
“He has no plans to run,” said one close friend.
But other Republican lawmakers said the headline-grabbing steps Amash has taken in recent weeks suggest he is gearing up for a presidential bid.
Amash rocked Washington last month when he became the first Republican lawmaker to declare — after reading the 448-page report from special counsel Robert Mueller — that Trump had obstructed justice and engaged in “impeachable conduct.”
On Wednesday, Amash broke with Republicans again when he was the only GOP member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to vote in favor of holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt.
That move came just days after Amash resigned from the House Freedom Caucus he helped launch four years ago with Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other conservatives. The caucus has stood for reduced federal spending, limited government and protecting the Constitution, and helped send then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) into an early retirement in 2015.
But after Trump’s election, Amash grew increasingly frustrated that many caucus members exhibited what he considered blind loyalty to Trump, defending the president at any and all costs.
“Justin’s not running for reelection” to the House, said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump loyalist. “Justin’s running for president.”
Trump is now taking direct aim at Amash, huddling with Vice President Pence, Meadows and others to discuss the prospect of backing a GOP primary challenger to Amash in his reelection bid in the House, Politico reported Wednesday.
A new poll out this week showed Amash trailing little-known GOP challenger Jim Lower by 16 points — 49 percent to 33 percent.
But Amash seems unfazed by it all, saying he’s not worried by the threat of a Trump-backed primary challenge and that he would have no regrets if his call for impeachment ended his political career.
“I’ve spent my whole time in office under fire from different people, so it doesn’t worry me. I’ve had multiple elections where people thought I was the underdog and won by large margins,” Amash said in Wednesday’s interview. “I don’t really worry about any of that stuff. I have a lot of confidence in what I’m doing, in the American people, and especially the people in my district.”
“First I’m not going to lose, and second, I don’t have any regrets about doing the right thing,” he added, referring to a House race. “I didn’t run for office to sell out my principles to the party or to any one person. I’ve promised the people of my district I would operate in a certain way, uphold the Constitution, uphold the rule of law, fight for limited government and liberty, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Amash, the first Palestinian American to serve in Congress, won election in the Tea Party wave that swept Republicans into power in 2010. The attorney and former state lawmaker burnished a reputation as a strict constitutionalist and constant thorn in the side of GOP leadership.
His divorce from the ultraconservative Freedom group has been a trying episode.
“It’s certainly sad. It’s not like a happy moment to leave a group I helped found,” Amash said. “But I felt it was the right move under the circumstances.”
He also said he remains friends with Jordan, Meadows and others in the Freedom Caucus. On Wednesday, Amash sat next to and chatted with Jordan during an Oversight hearing before the contempt vote.
When asked Wednesday if he was aware of an Amash presidential bid, Meadows told The Hill: “I only have heard about his desire to run for reelection for his congressional seat. Nothing more.”
Amash’s call for impeachment put many of his GOP colleagues in an extremely difficult spot. Many Republicans want to be able to say that Amash is standing on principle and a man of conviction, one senior GOP lawmaker explained, but they don’t want to incite the wrath of Trump.
“He’s radioactive right now,” the GOP lawmaker said. “Even his closest friends and most trusted allies are in an awkward position of defending him as a person, because then they become part of the headline.”
Asked if Amash is a man of principle, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) replied with a smile: “Justin is a friend.”
Davis described a possible Amash presidential bid as “a quixotic adventure.”
“I just don’t see it happening. It’s going to come down to the president and a major Democratic candidate,” said Davis, former chairman of the Republican Main Street Caucus. “He is somebody who marches to his own drummer. What we are seeing with Justin right now is not new to the Republican conference.”
One Freedom Caucus colleague, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), called an Amash presidential bid “political suicide.”
Amash’s push for impeachment “was really over the top. He got elected and is entitled to his own position, but I totally disagree with him,” Lesko said. “I think he should change his mind and get out. He has no chance.”
More than 50 House Democrats have now called on their leadership to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump obstructed justice and committed other crimes. Amash’s Michigan colleague, freshman Democratic Rep. Rashida Tliab, who has known Amash for years, has introduced a resolution calling on the Judiciary Committee to explore impeachment.
But Amash said he is not prepared to sign on as a co-sponsor to any of the Democratic pro-impeachment resolutions, especially since Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not expressed any desire to move forward on impeachment.
“Unless the Speaker is interested in acting, the resolutions don’t really have much meaning at this point,” Amash said. “If the Speaker doesn’t want to move forward, the whole thing is dead in the water anyway.”
“Dead in the water” might describe Amash’s chance of winning the electoral votes of at least Wisconsin and many of those battleground states anyway. As a sort-of fan of Amash (because I believe the GOP needs to become more libertarian and less big-government-that-we’re-in-charge-of), I have pointed out here that there is less difference between Amash and Trump than some might think based on voting records.
But even if that were not the case, political history shows that with the lone exception of alcohol, Wisconsin is a very un-libertarian state. Wisconsin has the second most units of government of any state, high taxes, and big government in other senses. There is really no one at the federal level representing who could be considered remotely libertarian, and the last libertarian Republican in the Legislature was probably Sen. Dave Zien. Wisconsin Republicans — both politicians with the big R after their names, and those who support them — do not support smaller government or much else that libertarians support. And to think that self-identified Republicans will vote for Amash is, from the Democratic Party view, a triumph of hope over experience.
That’s Wisconsin. This analysis also ignores the fact that the Democrats may well not coalesce around current presidential frontrunner Joe Biden in the same way that Democrats didn’t coalesce around Hillary Clinton three years ago. Recall that Bernie Sanders claimed to support Hillary after she stole the Democratic nomination from him, but Comrade Sanders’ supporters didn’t vote for Hillary. Not enough has changed to make one think that a four-way race among Trump, Biden or another Democrat, someone left of Biden and someone more libertarian than Trump is impossible next year.