House Freedom Caucus members are urged to stand by Jim Jordan

US Rep. denies knowledge of alleged abuse at OSU

By SARAH WESTWOOD, ASHLEY KILLOUGH, ELIZABETH LANDERS AND SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)

WASHINGTON (CNN) - House Freedom Caucus members are being urged to stand by Rep. Jim Jordan amid allegations that he knew about, but did not report, the alleged sexual abuse of wrestlers he coached at Ohio State University in the early 1990s.

Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, called on members to support Jordan, an Ohio Republican who's one of the founders of the conservative voting bloc.

"I have always known Jim Jordan to be a man of the utmost character, honor and integrity. As the independent investigation is concluded, I'm confident people will learn the truth and it will confirm all he has said about the situation," the North Carolina Republican told CNN on Friday. "I'm proud to stand by Jim Jordan and support him 100% and call on all of my colleagues to do the same."

It remains unclear, however, whether the nearly three dozen lawmakers who make up the Freedom Caucus will heed Meadows' advice and defend Jordan publicly when they return to Capitol Hill next week.

Jordan has spoken to more than a dozen Freedom Caucus members since the allegations became public and believes he has the support of everyone with whom he has discussed the situation, a source close to Jordan noted.

CNN reached out to the offices of most Freedom Caucus members on Friday and did not receive on-the-record statements of support for Jordan other than the ones provided by Meadows and Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who is sometimes described as a member of the Freedom Caucus but does not identify himself as one. The House was not in session on Friday, and most members spend such downtime in their districts.

The source close to Jordan said his allies have questioned the timing of the allegations, noting the claims come at a time when Jordan is "ascendant" and are related to events that took place decades ago.

"The (Freedom Caucus) members have spoken to Jim. They believe him. They have worked with him for a long time," the source said.

CNN has been unable to independently verify whether Freedom Caucus members indeed believe Jordan's denials.

"It took 20 years for this to come out, and you're saying he should've known?" the source added.

Jordan himself has questioned why the claims he turned a blind eye to the alleged sexual misconduct of a university sports doctor are only just now bubbling up.

Speaking to reporters in Ohio on Thursday, Jordan noted the timing of the Ohio State allegations was "kind of interesting" given his high-profile grilling last week of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which came during a hearing on the 2016 presidential race and Russian meddling in the election.

"The timing is kind of interesting. It's right after the big hearing with Mr. Rosenstein. It's right when there's all this talk about a speaker's race," he said.

Gaetz, who sits on the Judiciary Committee with Jordan and says he spoke to the Ohio congressman this week, said he was very "frustrated" about the accusations that his colleague had overlooked sexual abuse while he was a wrestling coach more than two decades ago.

"It's BS. And the timing is suspect," Gaetz told CNN on Friday in a phone interview.

Echoing concerns Jordan and others have raised this week, Gaetz argued the wrestling scandal could be political retribution for Jordan's intense grilling of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last week and ahead of the committee's hearing with FBI agent Peter Strzok next week.

"And if this is a message that if people ask tough questions and demand oversight like Jim Jordan has (and) that they could be targets of baseless accusations, that is not good for the Congress," Gaetz said.

Another member of Congress close to Jordan told CNN on Thursday that Jordan plans to return to Washington next week and fight the allegations.

"The plan is going to be: Fight back," the member said. The member called the allegations against Jordan "an attack on all of us," and also raised concerns about the timing.

The lawmaker questioned why more of Jordan's conservative colleagues haven't emerged publicly to defend him.

"I'm a little surprised that you haven't seen a ton of Freedom Caucus members and the Freedom Caucus as an entity universally condemning this. Compare it to Mark Sanford: When the president raps Mark Sanford, the Freedom Caucus comes out with a unified voice and says we stand with Mark Sanford and this is inappropriate," the member said, referring to Trump's recent decision to go after the Republican representative from South Carolina in a tweet and in a closed-door meeting with the House GOP conference.

A former adviser to Jordan defended him by noting the six-term congressman had helped her when she suffered sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

"He's someone I inherently trust -- when I was a victim of sexual harassment while working on Capitol Hill ... he was a member that I sought counsel from on how to handle it and who advised me on how to report it," the former adviser said. "I don't know anyone who knows Jim that thinks he'd ever ignore wrongful behavior -- especially of this terrible degree. It's completely out of step with his character."

While Trump on Thursday publicly stood by Jordan, who is among his close allies on Capitol Hill, a White House aide said the White House is not likely to wage a sustained campaign of on-record defense for the congressman.

"I highly doubt we'll publicly defend him but I'm sure the president will continue to personally," the aide said. "I'm sure Sarah Sanders doesn't want to deal with it at all."

In the wider House Republican conference, however, some say Jordan has few allies willing to defend him against the scandal. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has said he supports a full investigation of the allegations, and Jordan's office has confirmed he will cooperate with investigators.

"He's made a lot of enemies over the years. The knives are going to be out for Jim Jordan after these allegations," said a senior GOP congressional aide. "He has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way through his tactics with the Freedom Caucus. So don't expect a lot of goodwill towards him in this situation."

Jordan had privately mulled a bid for the speakership as conservatives look for ways to consolidate their power during the coming GOP leadership shuffle. But the Ohio congressman's leverage in negotiations for any position of power has been severely diminished as a result of the allegations, the senior congressional aide noted.

"I don't think he ever really had a shot, but this pretty much kills any real chance he had of winning over the conference," the aide said.

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