How Jim Jordan went from ‘legislative terrorist’ to inside operator

By | July 27, 2021

Jim Jordan was working out in the House gym in late November 2018 when Kevin McCarthy called him with a peace offering in the wake of their battle for the GOP conference’s top job.

The Ohio lawmaker coveted the senior spot on the House Oversight Committee, a powerful new perch that would offer him a bigger megaphone and a chance to wage daily battle with Democrats. But McCarthy’s offer came with a caveat: Jordan would have to shed his past willingness to drive a wedge within the conference, the type of behavior that prompted former Speaker John Boehner to christen him a “legislative terrorist,” and become a team player.

It was a calculated risk for McCarthy, who had watched Jordan rise as a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, an arch-conservative group that made legislative life hell for McCarthy’s two predecessors in Republican leadership. That call, recounted by McCarthy and Jordan, illustrates the breadth of the mutual leap the duo took to consolidate their power as allies.

Now, as Jordan reaches new heights of popularity among his House GOP peers after Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred him from the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the moment stands out as a key inflection point in their relationship.

McCarthy told POLITICO that both men, not to mention the conference writ large, evolved to bring his relationship with Jordan to the current moment: “You adapt. If you don’t adapt, you’re not gonna get there,” he said.

Lately, the onetime leadership rivals couldn’t be closer. The Ohioan is even rethinking the Freedom Caucus’ efforts to install former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) over McCarthy in 2015.

“We should have made McCarthy the speaker, versus Ryan,” Jordan said during a recent interview in his office. “Looking back, we should have done that because Kevin can make a decision and … he’s done just a good job of bringing the entire team working together.”

That remarkable shift in the two men’s dynamic, from rivals for minority leader to partners, explains a lot about why Republicans are oozing with confidence that they can retake the House next fall. Jordan said he expects his good relations with McCarthy to continue if the party retakes the majority and denied any interest in vying for a higher post himself at that time, asserting that it’s leadership — not him — who’s evolved.

“I don’t think I’ve changed one bit, but there’s been a dramatic change in the leadership of our conference and just dramatic change in a good way from Boehner to McCarthy,” Jordan said.

When Jordan appeared before the GOP Steering Committee to discuss the top job on the Oversight Committee in 2018, however, his past as a rhetorical bomb-thrower atop the Freedom Caucus was fresh on many Republican minds. Members of the steering panel, which is largely controlled by Republican leadership, skewered Jordan during that encounter.

“You can’t go s— all over the conference” and then get rewarded with a ranking member’s position, one lawmaker on the Steering panel recalled of the back-and-forth, addressing it on condition of anonymity. That Republican said Jordan received a “harsh” dressing-down and ultimately agreed that, if he got to lead his party on the Oversight panel, he would give GOP leadership the “benefit of the doubt” going forward.

McCarthy and other Republicans saw Jordan’s past machinations against the conference as a byproduct of his exclusion from its inner sanctum. In that vein, his motivations shifted once he was given a seat at the table.

“If you do the same thing always … and you don’t take a risk, you can’t win anything,” McCarthy said of his decision to offer Jordan the Oversight spot. He didn’t try to strong-arm Jordan while offering the position, McCarthy added, but said only that “If you’re going to be a ranker, you have responsibilities … ”

Jordan said that he couldn’t recall getting warned sharply during the Steering meeting. As he remembered it, he told McCarthy he was leery of stepping on his friend, former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a fellow Donald Trump ally who also wanted the Oversight Committee’s top GOP spot. According to Jordan, he made no promises about how he would operate as ranking member in 2018 but said only, “thanks for the opportunity.”

No matter whose memory is right, there’s no disputing that Jordan made the most of that opportunity McCarthy gave him — and the risk has paid off dramatically. By early 2020 Jordan had jumped to become the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, a position he had long aspired to. There he would play a key role in the GOP defense against Democrats’ first impeachment investigation of Trump’s contacts with Ukraine, a performance that helped make him one of McCarthy’s top picks for the select committee on Jan. 6.

Of course, Trump himself played a major role in Jordan’s journey from the fringes to the highest ranks of the House GOP. The former president got involved in the McCarthy-Jordan leadership race in 2018 to smooth tensions between the two, and Jordan’s support of the bombastic Trump is as critical to his rise this Congress as it is to Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) fall.

Trump also played an indirect role in Jordan’s growing House GOP clout. Spearheading the Republican defense in both Trump impeachments helped the Ohioan make new allies across the conference’s ideological spectrum, in part by mentoring younger members on the Judiciary and Oversight panels.

“Jim, I’ve noticed, especially over the last year, spends a lot of time going around and talking to the new members, the ones that he feels like want his advice,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who became the top Republican on the Oversight panel after Jordan moved to Judiciary.

“He probably wasn’t the most popular member in the conference when I arrived four and a half years ago, but I think that he probably is the most popular member of the conference” nowadays, Comer added. “He’s the most popular member with the Republican base, there’s no question about that.”

Jordan said that “I try to help our colleagues, particularly if you’re on” the Judiciary panel, adding that he’s traveled to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Louisiana so far to assist fellow House Republicans.

“That is what you do. It is what Kevin [McCarthy] does. It is what [House Minority Whip] Steve [Scalise] does. It is what President Trump did,” Jordan added.

He may have left his past antics behind, but his embrace of shutdown politics and political brawls, his avid defense of Trump at every turn, his skill at lobbing attacks at his opponents — not to mention his ties to a sexual abuse scandal on the Ohio State University wrestling team — mean Jordan will be forever infamous among Democrats. Among them, Pelosi is seen as heroic for blocking Jordan from the Jan. 6 probe.

Jordan has “led the charge” among Republicans toward “cult-ish behavior [that’s] contributed to profound dysfunctionality and debasement of a proud and major political party,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.

House Republicans have their own, and varied, opinions about Jordan’s status. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), a close friend and fellow Freedom Caucus member, said he thinks “Congress probably has” evolved more than Jordan has. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), also a far-right conservative, agreed that Jordan’s “message is still the same.”

Some Republicans acknowledge, even if only privately, that Jordan has indeed changed. Others argued that his vibe might feel different if they take back the House next year.

“We’re in the minority,” remarked Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member. “Let’s see how the evolution looks in January,” he added.

A few McCarthy allies, meanwhile, have mused that part of Jordan’s transformation came from pulling the Ohioan away from Meadows, who they saw as a bad influence.

Jordan has distanced himself from various moves led by members of the Freedom Caucus, including the deployment of parliamentary delay tactics designed to protest Democratic policies that have bred frustration among the broader GOP conference. He has also broken from Freedom Caucus members on key votes, including to support two bills honoring the Capitol Police for their response to the Jan. 6 assault.

Still, some Republicans question whether if Jordan will maintain his alliance with McCarthy and other leaders if they win back the House next fall. And despite his shift from the outside to the inside of the GOP conference, other colleagues wonder if Jordan has privately hatched plans to overthrow McCarthy when the time comes. But many believe their unity now will keep going well into a 2023 majority, with Jordan very much included.

“It makes us a more inclusive team,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a moderate who sits on the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “There’s a great saying: It’s better to have people in the tent pissing out than people outside the tent pissing in.”

McCarthy had an even pithier assessment of Jordan, saying: “He is getting along with everyone — that’s a leader.”

Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.