You might wonder how the president could get out of bed and head to Capitol Hill after the beating he took there on Monday at the hands of FBI Director James Comey. But roll out he did to make a big push for passage of the American Health Care Act, a bill he’s not been all that enthusiastic about but which has become a test of his leadership. Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump “knocked the cover off the ball” as he reminded members that this is our chance, this is our moment, this is our “rendezvous with destiny.” The rendezvous didn’t provide time for taking questions.
It’s just as well for Trump, as they would not have been softballs. Although he was met with applause, Trump treats Congress less like an equal branch of government than an extension of his staff. He alternately wooed (“we have a chance to do something amazing”) and threatened them (“many of you will lose your seats in 2018 if you don’t get this done.”) He singled out Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) for special attention.
Trump invited Meadows to Mar-a-Lago last weekend for some personal arm-twisting, which hasn’t yet led to a change of heart. That produced Trump’s one attempt at humor, which fell about as flat as his earlier joking about mutual surveillance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meadows mumbled about how lovely the weekend was, and Trump replied “not lovely enough” since it had not yet got him to yes. Trump promised he would come to Meadows’s defense should his constituents get angry with him. That was met with laughter.
The folks in the room have been home to see firsthand that the natives are restless over a bill that almost no one but Ryan trusts to make life better for their voters. A seven-page addendum improved the steaming mess—it enhances the tax credit for those aged 50 to 64 who were slighted in the bill—but it didn’t cure the overall problem. More than 20 million people could lose their health insurance over the next decade because Republicans are repealing the law that provided it, and replacing it with something that doesn’t, without getting rid of the parts voters don’t like and while giving an indefensible tax break to the wealthy. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who frequently backs Trump, summed up the danger: Voters don’t know who gave them health care, but they will know who took it away.
There are crosscurrents at work that don’t affect Trump. There are voters frightened to realize Republicans may actually take government out of their health care. Then there is Heritage Action who will be counting a No on the AHCA as a key vote. The Club for Growth is spending a half million dollars over the next few days in a threatening ad campaign against members tempted to vote in favor.
For Trump, today’s meeting was an opportunity to close a deal and play out a bet that the AHCA will keep the House Republican. It’s not something that his heart was in until aides convinced him a loss might be pinned on him and jeopardize the rest of his agenda. At a rally in Louisville Monday night, Trump took his time getting to health care, which is imminent, to talk about the future for his “favorite things…” “a very big tax cut,” jobs coming back, and trade deals. His touting of the AHCA is rarely on the merits, if such a thing exists and if he has mastered them. In Louisville, Trump said the ACHA would be passed “in some form,” on the heels of saying a few days earlier “I know that” when Fox News host Tucker Carlson pointed out that the poor, working-class counties that voted for Trump would fare the worst under the legislation, and Hillary Clinton’s would fare the best.
For Trump, the AHCA is a far cry from what he thought he could do. Trump’s friend and confidant Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy, who saw Trump last weekend, claims that health care is a moral issue for the president. Trump spoke fervently during the campaign about how fantastic health care would be in his administration, how people “can have their plans, they can have everything” because doing so is “just human decency.” Compared to that, President Barack Obama’s promise about keeping your doctor amounts to take two aspirin and call me in the morning.
It’s hard to know what Trump believes as the poor man ricochets from Steve Bannon’s seek-and-destroy strategy to Gary Cohn’s preserve-and-improve to Reince Priebus’s establishment take. His promises about the health care that could be came before Trump discovered “it’s complicated.” The clarion call for repeal and replace (with a much better plan) was reduced to win now and worry later (about devising a much better plan) as if the Senate and conference committee are miracle workers.
Up until now, the Hill has been rolling over for him, most members defending or falling silent over his baseless wiretapping charges, his sympathy for Russia, and his frivolous side wars with Nordstrom’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Weakened, he is now rolling over for them, for the leadership, if not the foot soldiers. Trump only swims with the whales. It’s always about winning and losing at any cost. He concluded the meeting with his lifelong anthem, “A loss is not acceptable, folks.”
Trump’s attempt at cajolery notwithstanding, Meadows emerged from the meeting to say there was still not enough repeal and too little replacement to win more than a few outliers in his caucus. But there’s time: two days left of ads flooding the airwaves, arms left to be twisted, politicians left to stew.
Should the bill go down to a likely razor-thin defeat, Trump fears becoming one of the losers he abhors. But in fact, a bigger loss could await him should it pass. There’s a reason the bill is the only thing in the world Trump doesn’t want his name on.