During the ill-fated first round of the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, President Trump suggested that he wouldn’t support a bill that hurts Americans, telling Fox News, “If we’re not going to take care of the people, I’m not signing anything.” Then he held a Rose Garden ceremony to celebrate the passage of the American Health Care Act, which was projected to cost 23 million people their insurance in the next decade.
Earlier this month, President Trump told a group of Republican senators that the House bill was “mean, mean, mean.” Yet he supported the nearly identical Senate version of the bill, which would cause 22 million people to lose their coverage by 2026. And when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell postponed the vote on Tuesday, President Trump invited every Republican senator to the White House and urged them to keep at it.
The simplest explanation for President Trump’s inconsistent stance on the health legislation (which the White House prefers not to call Trumpcare) is that he habitually tells the person standing in front of him whatever he thinks they want to hear, and isn’t worried about getting his facts straight. On Tuesday, the New York Times highlighted another possibility: President Trump has no idea what’s in the bill.
A senator who supports the bill left the meeting at the White House with a sense that the president did not have a grasp of some basic elements of the Senate plan — and seemed especially confused when a moderate Republican complained that opponents of the bill would cast it as a massive tax break for the wealthy, according to an aide who received a detailed readout of the exchange.
Mr. Trump said he planned to tackle tax reform later, ignoring the repeal’s tax implications, the staff member added.
According to the Times, Trump likes to tell friends he’s a “closer,” and in one meeting during the House health-care fight he reportedly urged members of Congress to look at the optics, not the bill’s contents. “Forget about the little shit,” Trump said. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”
This irked several of the congressmen, who felt details matter when you’re disrupting one-fifth of the economy. But even when focused on the politics of the health-care fight, Trump doesn’t appear to have a good sense of what’s happening in the Senate. While the White House was deeply involved in the renegotiation of AHCA and Trump pressured wavering House Republicans to vote for it in May, the president has been largely uninvolved in the Senate process. Trump talked with a few GOP opponents — including senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul — but failed to sway them.
Some Senate Republicans complained that Trump was actually hindering the process, and not just because Democrats have seized on his remark that the GOP plan is “mean.” After Republican Senator Dean Heller announced his opposition to the bill on Friday, pro-Trump super-pac America First Policies began running TV and radio ads attacking him. According to Politico the move, which was sanctioned by the White House, infuriated McConnell, as it made it harder to get Heller’s support. It angered several other top Republicans as well, since attacking the most vulnerable member of the conference is not conducive to their goal of maintaining a majority in 2018.
The Times reports that McConnell called White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and complained that the anti-Heller campaign was “beyond stupid.” Several senators, including Heller himself, complained about the ads during Tuesday’s meeting with Trump, and America First Policies announced they were pulling them a short time later.
In Trump’s defense, McConnell crafted the Senate bill in secret, and reportedly told the White House that it should leave everything to him. Per Politico:
Trump told aides and McConnell that he wanted to be involved in whipping votes, and two administration officials said he enjoyed doing so in the House.
But McConnell aides and advisers don’t think Trump can help like he could in the House.
“Trump doesn’t bring us any votes. He just doesn’t,” said one person familiar with the majority leader’s thinking.
Trump may have sway over members of the House, but as the Washington Post reports, senators are generally more independent and are much less afraid of Trump.
“The House health-care vote shows he does have juice, particularly with people on the right,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. “The Senate health-care vote shows that people feel that health care is a defining issue and that it’d be pretty hard for any politician to push a senator into taking a vote that’s going to have consequences for the rest of their life.”
It’s crazy that the president doesn’t seem fully aware of how his party intends to deliver one of his top campaign promises, but it’s probably a smart move. So far he’s shown he doesn’t understand how to sway senators, and might publicly criticize the bill if he finds out what’s in it.