Trump’s Ham-Handed, Incoherent Health Care Message Leaves Senate Flailing

United States President Donald J. Trump makes remarks to the press prior to having lunch with four veterans of Afghanistan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. In his ... United States President Donald J. Trump makes remarks to the press prior to having lunch with four veterans of Afghanistan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. In his remarks the President said he was "disappointed" about the GOP failure to pass a healthcare bill and said his plan was to "let Obamacare fail." Credit: Ron Sachs / CNP - NO WIRE SERVICE - Photo by: Ron Sachs/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images MORE LESS
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With one of his signature campaign promises—the repeal of Obamacare—all but dead in the Senate, President Donald Trump has for weeks been disinterested and distracted, involving himself only sporadically with ham-handed tactics and incoherent messages for his struggling Republican brethren.

On Wednesday, he summoned all 52 Republican senators to the White House to try to browbeat them into passing some form of a health care bill.  The president previewed his message for the lawmakers in an interview with televangelist Pat Robertson—saying he’ll be “very angry” if they can’t pass a bill—and in tweets Wednesday morning that made no case for the merits of the legislation or the difficult politics of curtailing the benefits of millions of people.

At the meeting, he threatened bill critic Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), asking as TV cameras rolled if he wants to “remain a senator,” and demanded the Senate stay in session through the summer recess until they “get it done” on health care.

As former veteran congressional staffer Stan Collender told TPM in April: “He’s thinking of them as underlings and he’s the CEO. But he’s not Congress’ CEO, he’s the president of the United States. They don’t work for him, they work for their constituents.”

Trump’s tin ear for Washington politics was on full display Monday night—the night Republican defectors drove the final nail into the coffin of the latest Obamacare repeal bill. The president hosted a group of senators at White House ostensibly to discuss health care over an elegant steak dinner, but did not invite any of the on-the-fence lawmakers he needed to convince to support the repeal effort. Instead, he dined with a group that already supported the bill, and according to the Washington Post, spent most of the evening recounting his recent trip to France.

Over the following 36 hours, Trump cycled through several wildly different positions on what the Senate should do on health care, saying Monday night that they should move forward with a controversial repeal-and-delay bill despite widespread opposition.

Less than a full day later, he said lawmakers should do nothing and “let Obamacare fail.”

By Wednesday, he had returned to advocating for a revival of the Senate’s Obamacare replacement bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, that died before ever receiving a vote on the floor.

On Wednesday morning, as they prepared to head to the White House, Republican senators were hesitant to criticize the president, but did not seem optimistic about the meeting.

Asked if the summoning is helpful, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told TPM: “I hope so but I don’t know for sure.” Asked what can be accomplished, he repeated, “I don’t know.”

Other Republicans responded with similar verbal shrugs to Trump’s involvement.

Asked if Wednesday’s lunch meeting will make a difference, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) quipped “depends what they serve,” before offering a less-than-enthusiastic, “It might.”

Asked if he expects progress on the health care impasse in the meeting, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) chuckled. “We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see,” he said.

Asked if it’s possible to revive the left-for-dead BCRA, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) offered a hearty “Maybe.”

The president’s “repeal Obamacare or else” message is resonating, however, with the Senate’s far-right members, who told reporters Wednesday that they hope Trump can convince their wayward colleagues to support “full repeal.”

“For seven years, Republicans have told the voters: ‘If you elect us, we’ll repeal Obamacare,'” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), carefully choosing his words as he walked through the Capitol’s underground tunnels surrounded by half a dozen reporters. “I think we will look like fools if we can’t deliver on that promise.”

But that message is unlikely to resonate with the moderate senators opposing the legislation who have repeatedly promised to protect their constituents’ Medicaid benefits and advocate for people with pre-existing conditions.

“Any time you’re over at the White House and the president is talking to you about his opinions, it can provide a pretty strong case,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) acknowledged. “But,” she added with a laugh, “we have our strong opinions too.”

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