WASHINGTON — Some members of Congress decorate their offices with busts of their political idols, like Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan.
Not U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.).
He’s got a statute of Darth Vader looming next to his desk.
It’s just one of the many ways that the fiercely independent West Michigan lawmaker has spurned the norms on Capitol Hill. In his highest-profile act of political defiance, Amash became the first congressional Republican to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. Then he left the GOP in July, making him the lone independent in a deeply polarized chamber.
He now faces tough challenges from the right and left in his district. He infuriated GOP leadership and was booted from his post on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. And he’s got a powerful enemy in the White House.
Despite all that, Amash says he’s a lot happier these days.
“Being in one of these parties is kind of miserable,” he told the Advance this week in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “You come to work and the leadership tried to focus you on partisan fights the whole time and messaging, and they don’t really care about policy. They certainly don’t care about principles. And that’s just a miserable state to be in.”
He came to Congress in 2011, the year the GOP took back control of the U.S. House. Amash spent his first few years on Capitol Hill pushing his party from the right. He’s a founding member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, which he also left this year.
He quickly got frustrated by the chamber’s top-down approach to partisan politics, he said.
“They tell you how to vote. They tell you what to do. … It’s largely just an elaborate form of theater,” he said. “I just want to go to Congress and represent my constituents and do what I think is right and not have the party always harping about how I’m breaking from the team.”
He thinks Trump worsened the state of politics, but he doesn’t blame him entirely.
“Partisan politics were here before President Trump and they’ll be here after,” Amash said. “But he took it to a new level and exacerbated the problem. And he definitely helped fuel an environment where people really cannot break from the party, they have to stay aligned with the president. And I think that’s a really dangerous place to be.”
After Amash’s decision to leave the GOP, Trump called him “one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress” and a “total loser” on Twitter.
Great news for the Republican Party as one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress is “quitting” the Party. No Collusion, No Obstruction! Knew he couldn’t get the nomination to run again in the Great State of Michigan. Already being challenged for his seat. A total loser!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 4, 2019
But Amash has never appeared to care much about what the president or his colleagues think about him. He’s perfectly willing to anger lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Now that he’s an independent, he chooses which side of the House floor he speaks on, depending on which side he plans to anger that day.
“Yesterday I spoke on the floor and I spoke from the Republican side, but that’s because I was upsetting the Democrats yesterday,” he said. “And then another time when I was going to upset the Republicans I spoke from the Democratic side.”
He lost his seat on the Oversight Committee — one of six panels involved in the House’s impeachment inquiry against Trump — but he said he’s not stressing about it, calling the committees “largely theatrical.”
‘Tired of the parties’
Despite the raft of opponents from both parties vying for his seat, some of whom outraised him in the last fundraising quarter, Amash remains confident he can win again in 2020. Since leaving the GOP, he said, he’s “more supported in the district than any time I’ve been in Congress.”
He has “a lot of Democratic support, I’ve had a lot of independent support and I still have a lot of Republican support,” he said. “People want someone who’s going to be straightforward and honest and independent. They are tired of the parties.”
His dream job is to be speaker of the House, but he doesn’t see that happening in the current political climate. Amash continues to leave open the possibility that he’ll run for president in 2020, but he said this week that he hasn’t set a timeline for making such a decision.
As a self-described introvert who shuns the state of partisan politics, Amash isn’t someone who would obviously relish life in the White House.
But he wouldn’t mind the platform, he said.
“I do think that one of the things President Trump revealed with his election is that one person can influence a lot of people by becoming president, and I certainly think that’s important. I think that I could have a positive influence on the way people treat each other.”
Amash may be the most vocal conservative criticizing Trump on Capitol Hill, but he says he isn’t the only one.
“A lot of Republicans are very disturbed by the president,” he said. “They don’t like what he does. They don’t think he’s very conservative, and they certainly think he abuses power. But they’re hesitant to jump on board the impeachment bandwagon because they’re afraid they will lose primaries in their districts.”
He thinks they’re making a mistake by looking only at a very small sliver of the electorate.
For his part, Amash says he’s “very confident” that Democrats will draft articles of impeachment against Trump that he can support. Only one other Republican in the House— U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) publicly announced an openness to backing impeachment. Rooney announced his retirement soon after.
And while the odds of Trump’s removal by the GOP-led Senate don’t appear high, Amash views it as possible.
He thinks there’s a better chance that the Senate will vote to convict Trump than there is that a broad swath of House Republicans will get on board, given that House districts are smaller and many of them are gerrymandered to be highly partisan. Republican senators, on the other hand, represent large, diverse states.
“It would not surprise me if Republican senators voted to convict. But I think the likely outcome is that it’s either one or two Republican senators, like maybe [Utah Republican Sen.] Mitt Romney and one other person, or a very large number,” he said. “I think if it’s not one or two senators, I think it will be something like the dam breaks and they all flood through.”
‘He’s losing people’
Amash thinks Trump will lose Michigan in 2020.
That’s a shift from 2016, he said, when he thought Trump would clinch the state.
“I could see it in town halls and other things that he was drawing supporters who typically had not been voting Republican,” he said.
But now, “I see a shift where he’s losing people,” Amash said. He pointed to suburban voters who “tolerated President Trump the first time and said, ‘I’ll just go with him,’ because they were worried about Hillary Clinton and worried about the left. And they said, ‘Well, maybe he can be tamed. Maybe he’ll change when he’s in office.’ And for a lot of those people, they now recognize that nothing’s changing.”
Trump, Amash added, is “constantly stressing everyone out. He just constantly makes the day miserable for so many people, and they’re tired of him. So I think he’s going to do increasingly badly with suburban voters. And then in the city, like in Grand Rapids, they will not take him for granted anymore. I think those voters will come out much stronger than before.”
He expects that Trump will still fare well with rural voters, but Amash said there are some farmers and workers in other industries “who think he made a lot of promises, but he didn’t keep them with respect to their jobs and their industries.”
Amash stressed that he’s not backing any of the Democratic candidates, either.
“I’m not … supportive of any of them, really,” he said.