President Donald Trump is supposed to be the dealmaker-in-chief. He’s supposed to get the deals his predecessors couldn’t get, the concessions they couldn’t make, the wins they couldn’t find.
Instead, Trump signed onto the first health care bill Paul Ryan came up with only to watch it go down in flames. As I write this, the question has moved from whether the bill will pass to whether Trump can force a House vote to humiliate Ryan. So what the hell happened?
The answer can be found in Trump Steaks. And Trump University. And Trump Vodka. And Trump Suits. And Trump’s fragrance line, his board game, his ghostwritten books, his energy drink, his eyeglasses, and his chocolate bars.
Yes, these are all real Trump products. And they expose the reality of Trump’s dealmaking. Trump is not a guy who makes particularly good deals so much as a guy who makes a lot of deals — many of which lash his name and reputation to garbage products.
Trump, a lifelong teetotaler, didn’t scour the globe to find the very best vodka. No — someone offered him an opportunity to make a quick buck by putting his name on a product he wouldn’t ever touch and he took it. Trump University was a far darker scam. Trump Steaks were, and are, a joke.
This is Trump’s pattern: He licenses his brand and lets others worry about the details of the products. Trump’s partners often end up going out of business and his customers often end up disappointed, but Trump makes some money, and he gets his name out there, and it’s all good.
This was Trump’s approach to the health care bill, too. He let someone else worry about the product and he simply licensed his name, marketing support, and political capital. Trump didn’t know what was in the American Health Care Act, and he didn’t much care. It broke his promises to ensure health care for everyone, to protect Medicaid from cuts, to lower deductibles, and to guarantee choices of doctors and plans — but he didn’t pay attention to any of that. In private, Trump was apparently bored by the subject and eager to move onto tax reform.
But being president of the United States isn’t like being a downmarket consumer brand. The products you put your name on matter. And the deal isn’t done once you’ve appeared at the ribbon-cutting and hyped up the project. You still need to persuade members of Congress to vote for the bill — and they’re apt to wonder what will happen to them when 24 million people lose their health insurance and millions more find themselves forced into crummier, higher-deductible care.
Trump had no answers for these questions, and he didn’t have the patience to negotiate any out. He agreed to a few thoughtless changes to the legislation — changes that made the bill worse and less stable — and then demanded a vote, fast.
Sometimes it’s better to take no for an answer
In the morally cramped universe of political punditry, a “yes” vote on the American Health Care Act would be seen as a win for Trump. It won’t be. Passage of a bill that’s polling at 56-17 against even before it’s begun taking health insurance from people isn’t a victory, it’s a devastating, possibly legacy-defining, loss in the making. It’s real people being hurt by someone they thought would help them.
When Trump promised he would make better deals on behalf of the American people, they thought he meant deals that would make their lives better. On health care, for instance, they wanted what he promised — more and better health insurance with lower deductibles and lower premiums.
But Trump has never specialized in those kinds of deals. He’s specialized in deals that made his life easier and his name bigger, and the particular way he specialized in those deals was by caring much, much less about the consumer experience than his nearest competitors. The health care bill is a case in point. It’s a bad product, and Trump himself grew bored of it, and the work that was required to improve and pass it, quickly:
Late tonight Trump told confidants that he is now ready to see who's with him and who's against him, that the wooing & chatty calls are done— Robert Costa (@costareports) March 24, 2017
How is he going to bear four years of this job? How are we?
This isn’t the first of Trump’s deals to go bad. But there is a different dynamic at work in this one. Trump is famous, when his partnerships collapse, for screwing contractors and suing collaborators. He seems to be doing that here, too. Ryan went to the White House today to tell Trump he didn’t have the votes and they should pull the bill, and Trump is demanding a vote anyway.
If Ryan holds that vote, it will be a humiliation for him — this was his bill, and his strategy, and Trump will have forced him to show just how far short he fell. But Trump doesn’t get anything out of humiliating Ryan save for a worse relationship with his most important legislative ally.
Humbling Ryan — and angering House Republicans who don’t want to take a tough vote on doomed legislation — makes everything from tax reform to infrastructure harder, and in a worst-case scenario, it might make them wonder just how much political capital they should be burning to protect Trump from the Russia investigations.
In Trump’s past jobs, he could simply move on from failed deals and find new partners, and new markets, and new sectors. But that’s not how the presidency works, and it’s not clear he realizes that.