President Trump convened a strategy session over steak and succotash at the White House with senators Monday night, trying to plot an uphill path to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a GOP alternative.
He made an impassioned pitch on why Republicans needed to do it now – and the political peril they could face if they didn’t “repeal and replace” after promising to do it for years. He also vented about Democrats and the legislative process. “He basically said, if we don’t do this, we’re in trouble,” said one person briefed on the meeting. “That we have the Senate, House and White House and we have to do it or we’re going to look terrible.”
Meanwhile, two senators – neither invited to the dinner – were simultaneously drafting statements saying how they couldn’t support the current bill, which they released just after Trump’s White House meal concluded.
Trump had no idea the statements were coming, according to several White House and congressional officials. His top aides were taken aback, and the White House was soon on the phone with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The abrupt collapse of the current plan blew up what the White House wanted for months, and undoubtedly set back Republicans in their goal to overhaul President Obama’s legislation. It certainly frustrated a number of the president’s top aides, who have negotiated to-the-letter certain packages for certain senators for a summer solution.
But Trump, who has not fretted over the details of the proposed legislation, seemed ready to try something else – trading ribeye negotiations for his favorite pastime.
Within an hour, Trump was back on Twitter, where he put forward a different idea – one he has posited privately for months – after talking to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and top aides.
“Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan that will start from a clean slate. Dems will join in!” he wrote on Twitter.
Trump is fine doing it that way, said one White House aide – as “long as something gets done.”
To Trump, the Obamacare fight has always been about scoring a win. He doesn’t care nearly as much about the specifics, people close to him say, and hasn’t understood why legislators just won’t make deals and bring something, anything to his desk.
He has said publicly and privately he didn’t understand it would take this long. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Trump said in February. At a different point, he said only Middle East peace would be harder.
Along the way, Trump has weighed various options, from not paying cost-sharing subsidies and letting the law implode to repealing it without a replacement – which he veered back to on Twitter Monday night.
“He told us months ago, we could just let it blow up and blame the Democrats,” said one activist who met with Trump at the White House.
He praised the conservative version of the law passed through the House in a Rose Garden fête before trashing it as “mean” in a meeting with moderate senators.
Earlier Monday evening, just after Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced their opposition, a White House official said that the team would go back to working with individual members on the bill. There was no desire, this person said, to start negotiations over from scratch.
White House officials said they purposefully picked veteran lawmakers who they saw as allies to attend the dinner with Trump, not legislators they thought were on the fence. But the bill was already on a knife edge, with a vote delayed this week due to the absence of Arizona Sen. John McCain due to a medical procedure.
Trump has privately wondered why legislators don’t seem to listen to him, and the blow from Moran and Lee illustrated the limits of the president’s capacity to master the art of the Washington deal.
“None of the people at the dinner were the ones they should have been worried about,” said one person involved in the discussions.
Trump allies have sometimes attacked Republicans the White House needs to support the bill. He has alienated some senators with his unorthodox tweets and his inattention to policy details, even as they have praised others on his staff. He has sometimes expressed a view that Democrats would like to work with Republicans like he did Monday night, even though his staff harbors skepticism.
“Why would Trump call McCain crusty Monday afternoon?” one White House official asked. “Because that’s the word that came to his brain.”
According to several people briefed on the matter, Trump and McConnell were prepared to make similar statements Monday evening. But Trump pre-empted the Senate majority leader – sending a quick tweet that took even some of his staff by surprise. “There it is,” one aide said, two minutes after promising news within “an hour.”
“Regretfully, it is now apparent that the effort to repeal and immediately replace the failure of Obamacare will not be successful,” McConnell said, in a missive from Don Stewart, his spokesman.
A White House official said, per usual policy, that Trump’s tweet would speak for itself.