WASHINGTON – A top player on President Trump's anti-impeachment team – and the latest possible candidate for Congress in New York's 27th Congressional District – made his political debut at the age of 13 when then-President Bill Clinton came to Buffalo.
"Impeach the president!" Jeff Freeland shouted as his Lewiston-Porter Middle School classmates waited outside Marine Midland Arena to see Clinton, who was in the midst of a Senate impeachment trial at the time.
Freeland's free speech merited him a day of detention, according to a discipline report that he shared with The Buffalo News.
"Students were warned not to engage in this type of conduct," the report said.
As irony would have it, Freeland – now special assistant to the president for legislative affairs – is working on Trump's impeachment defense while privately contemplating a political campaign of his own.
It's a complicated set of circumstances, but Freeland seemed to tie it all together in one sentence in a recent interview.
"You know, I've been a political animal for many years," said Freeland, now 34.
A St. Bonaventure University graduate, Freeland began his political life working his way up in the offices of Reps. Thomas M. Reynolds, Chris Lee and Chris Collins.
But then, in March 2016, Collins endorsed Trump – and Freeland went off to join the Trump campaign. He later worked on the Trump transition, then in the White House budget office before joining the West Wing legislative staff in April 2018.
Doing that, Freeland developed a deep loyalty to the president, which is why he wants to help Trump weather impeachment before deciding on his own future.
"I want to get this done," Freeland said. "With impeachment, I mean it's been five months. ... And I've been with the president since the get-go. It will be four years come March. And so, you know, being able to see this one to the very end is very important to me."
Freeland has been working long days and nights on impeachment for months. First he labored to keep Republican lawmakers on Team Trump while the Democratic House impeached the president without one Republican vote.
His work was "critically important," said Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who credited Freeland with helping make sure that no House Republicans peeled away from the president.
"If you're in the legislative affairs business like Jeff is, to get a unanimous Republican vote on something as contentious as that is really a major success," Mulvaney said.
With Republicans controlling a majority and the Constitution requiring a vote of two-thirds of the Senate in order to remove a president, Trump's ongoing impeachment trial likely will end in his acquittal. In the meantime, Freeland serves as the liaison between White House lawyers, the House Republicans defending Trump and the senators who will decide the president's fate.
"We're trying to find out just different ways that we can can really change the narrative," Freeland said.
The narrative, according to Democrats and witnesses at House impeachment hearings, is that Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden – a possible campaign rival – as well as Biden's son Hunter's relationship with a Ukrainian gas company. Witnesses said Trump withheld aid to Ukraine to press for that probe.
So why does the kid who thought Bill Clinton should be impeached think Trump did the defensible?
"With Clinton, there was a crime there," in that the Democratic president committed perjury when he lied about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, Freeland said.
He said what Trump did is not such an obvious wrong.
"There are a lot of senators and others saying that it's not an impeachable offense," Freeland said. "And I mean if you ask most people on the street, you know, they tell you, like, where's the crime? There's no break-in like at the Watergate. There's no things happening in the Oval Office with the president like they were under Clinton."
Once Trump's trial ends, Freeland will decide whether to remain in the White House or to enter what's expected to be a crowded Republican primary in June for the GOP nomination in the 27th District.
His actions signal that he'd like to do it. He showed up unexpectedly at the Republican county leaders' conclave where they chose State Sen. Chris Jacobs to run in an April special election to fill the seat Collins vacated when he resigned upon pleading guilty to insider trading charges. And while Freeland won't say much publicly about a race yet, he made it clear he doesn't see himself as a D.C.-based political operative for the rest of his life.
"When you leave Buffalo, there's always something there that you want to go back to," he said. "I think everybody really does want to go back."
Yet those are the words of a widely respected D.C. political operative.
Mulvaney called or texted the county chairs in New York's 27th District to praise Freeland before they settled on Jacobs. But the top Trump aide made clear that he was speaking for himself, not the president.
"This goes to my personal relationship with Jeff," Mulvaney said. "He's worked for me now for three years, and I'm more than happy to help him try to move on to the next level of his career."
Mulvaney said Freeland knows what it takes to be a successful congressman. Meantime, Kevin Kuwik, one of the leading members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, said: "I think Jeff is very talented."
Freeland has helped fight the families' battle for aviation safety since the 2009 plane crash. He helped push 2010 aviation safety legislation through the House and continued defending that law against any weakening under the Trump administration.
"He's helped us accomplish so many things and given us great advice," Kuwik said. "And he has the people skills and the kind of charisma so that you can see him going to the other side and becoming a member (of Congress) down the road."
Freeland also has an intimate knowledge of the 27th District, having worked for three members of Congress who represented the swath of suburbia and farmland linking the Buffalo and Rochester areas. Christopher M. Grant, the GOP political consultant who served as Collins' first chief of staff, said Freeland played a key role on agriculture issues and in the fight to maintain the pensions of retired Delphi Corp. retirees.
Adding it all up, Niagara County Republican Chairman Richard Andres said: "He's got a lot of background that I think would be appealing to the people in that district."
What Freeland doesn't have is the name recognition of others who may run in the June primary: Jacobs, State Sen. Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda, Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and attorney Beth Parlato, whose campaign recently got a boost from an endorsement from Buffalo Bills legend Jim Kelly.
Freeland's only brush with fame came last year, when he served as the Easter Bunny at the annual White House egg roll. Otherwise, even among some political players, Freeland has remained unnoticed.
"I don't remember having a conversation with Jeff until this past weekend," said John Pauer, the Republican chairman in Livingston County.
Freeland clearly hopes, though, that he won't go unnoticed much longer.
"I'm 34 years old," he said. "I've got a lot of life to live and a lot of work that I could be doing."
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