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U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., addresses the crowd in front of Northern Tool and Equipment at a town hall meeting in North Charleston on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. File/Michael Pronzato/Staff

WASHINGTON — Against the backdrop of crumbling negotiations over the GOP bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, President Donald Trump said last week he wanted to oust incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in 2018.

The South Carolina Republican told The Post and Courier that Trump chose to convey this message through an intermediary: White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, a former member of the S.C. congressional delegation, co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus and a friend.

"'The president asked me to look you square in the eyes and to say that he hoped that you voted ‘no’ on this bill so he could run (a primary challenger) against you in 2018,'" Sanford said Mulvaney told him.

He added that Mulvaney made it clear he did not want to deliver the message but did so at Trump's insistence.

"I’ve never had anyone, over my time in politics, put it to me as directly as that," Sanford said, perhaps understating just how monumental it is for a sitting president to openly go after members of his own party.

Sanford also isn't alone in bearing the brunt of Trump's ire. On Thursday, a week after GOP leaders canceled the vote on the health care bill, Trump tweeted he had no qualms about targeting the entire Freedom Caucus next year.

"The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!" Trump wrote.

The caucus numbers about three dozen GOP lawmakers, arguably more conservative and less willing to bend on certain matters than other Republicans in Congress.

Trump's specific message to Sanford, a member of the Freedom Caucus, is unique. It comes in the context of Sanford's consistent willingness to challenge Trump, while most other GOP lawmakers have kept their criticisms quiet, including during the campaign and after the election.

Even the famously candid U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has laid off on his attacks. As a reward for burying the hatchet, Graham has been invited to lunch at the White House and now receives personal phone calls from the commander-in-chief.

In contrast, Sanford, of Mount Pleasant, has refused to relent on his calls for Trump to release his tax returns in keeping with a 40-year precedent of presidential candidates exercising financial transparency. Sanford also has not shied away from expressing concerns about Trump's more incendiary rhetoric, from his penchant for "Twitter shaming," to his suggestions of mass voter fraud.

Sanford insisted he hasn't intended on being antagonistic.

"I have nothing against Donald Trump. There is zero personal animosity from me towards him," Sanford said. "I try to shoot it right down the middle, as I have always done in politics ... I want to help him succeed, because if he succeeds, the Republican congress, and our country by extension, succeeds." 

But Sanford conceded he was "disheartened" by the revelations.

"It's not exactly the kind of news that makes one’s day," he said. "To state the obvious, I’m not a guy who responds to threats well ... It’s contrary to all that I believe in in politics."

Trump's warning, Sanford said, contradicts the South Carolina Republican Creed, a line of which reads: "I will never cower before any master, save my God."

In the lead up to the doomed consideration of the health care bill, Sanford held seven town hall meetings where his constituents railed against the bill. The weekend after the measure collapsed, Sanford received positive feedback for opposing it from Republicans back home.

"I am committed to working in any way possible with the president, (but) I ultimately work for the people of the 1st District," Sanford said. "When a bill comes along that does not fit with the people I represent, or the promises I made in running, it's my belief that I have to represent that viewpoint regardless of other perspectives in Washington and the consequences of doing so."

As for whether he thought Trump was serious about backing a primary challenger, Sanford said, "You take everything seriously in the world of politics."

Whether a Trump-backed challenger could beat Sanford, who has never lost an election, is anybody's guess. It could depend on the candidate and on whether the campaign becomes a referendum on the new administration.

Two potential challengers have come forward so far: Ted Fienning, an entrepreneur and previously a Marine Corps fighter pilot, and Tom Perez, a defense analyst and Citadel graduate who has a 22-year career in the Navy and the Reserves.

On Thursday, Sanford wasn't willing to make predictions. "The 1st Congressional District no more belongs to me than it does to Donald Trump. It belongs to the people of the 1st District. And I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to have a conversation with the district and trying to represent them the best I can. When they decide they want someone else to do that, they’ll decide."

He did, however, predict Trump's negotiating style may not sit right with his constituents.

"I mentioned this to a couple of colleagues, and they said it sounds very Godfather-ish," Sanford said. "Their point was that this approach might work in New Jersey, but it probably doesn’t work so well in South Carolina."

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Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier's Washington correspondent. Reach her at 843-834-0419 and follow her @emma_dumain.

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