After news broke Tuesday that a Senate vote on the GOP health care bill would be postponed until after July 4, the New York Times and the Washington Post ran several stories that portrayed the president as a failed dealmaker, and a thorn in the sides of congressional Republicans — if they cared about his role in this at all.
The postponed vote was already a sign that the White House was not effectively uniting Republicans in the repeal-and-replace effort, but on the heels of a Tuesday afternoon meeting between Trump and top Republican senators, the news reports featured stunning criticism from the senators Trump has been trying to work with.
Trump did not take the reports well, and predictably took to Twitter to fume:
The failing @nytimes writes false story after false story about me. They don't even call to verify the facts of a story. A Fake News Joke!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2017
Some of the Fake News Media likes to say that I am not totally engaged in healthcare. Wrong, I know the subject well & want victory for U.S.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2017
Despite’s Trump’s posturing as the ultimate “closer,” together the reports painted a picture of a disorganized White House, a president without any relevant policy expertise, and a botched attempt from pro-Trump groups to twist arms that had congressional Republicans rolling their eyes.
Trump may refer to himself as the ultimate dealmaker, but by all accounts congressional Republicans would much rather work with the vice president than with the president. Here are the most striking passages from the reports:
In which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calls team Trump’s arm-twisting tactics “beyond stupid”
According to a report from the New York Times, Senate Republicans have been keeping Trump at arm’s length during health care negotiations.
The working relationship between the White House and Republican senators was made all the worse last weekend when America First, a pro-Trump Super PAC, ran an attack ad against Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) for coming out against the health bill — with the White House’s blessing.
McConnell and a number of Republicans senators weren’t happy, and made a point to tell the White House that was a “beyond stupid” move:
Over the weekend, Mr. McConnell made clear his unhappiness to the White House after a “super PAC” aligned with Mr. Trump started an ad campaign against Senator Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, after he said last week that he opposed the health care bill.
The majority leader — already rankled by Mr. Trump’s tweets goading him to change Senate rules to scuttle Democratic filibusters — called the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to complain that the attacks were “beyond stupid,” according to two Republicans with knowledge of the tense exchange.
The move against Mr. Heller had the blessing of the White House, according to an official with America First, because Mr. Trump’s allies were furious that the senator would side with Nevada’s governor, Brian Sandoval, a Republican who accepted the Medicaid expansion under the health law and opposes the Republican overhaul, in criticizing the bill.
It’s not far-fetched to think America First might simply be taking cues from the president himself, as Trump publicly threatened to campaign against members of his own party in the upcoming congressional elections if they voted against the House bill when it was on the floor in May.
The not-so-secret understanding that Trump doesn’t understand policy
To many congressional Republicans, Trump is Republican only in name — a figurehead to sign their legislation into law. The unspoken understanding on Capitol Hill is that Trump doesn’t really care — or understand — the policy, and that he’ll champion what they do as long as Republicans in Congress are getting something done. (That’s why health care has been such a challenge: Republicans have been struggling to get anything done.)
But the president’s lack of policy experience has also posed some problems. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who opposes the Senate health bill, told the Washington Post that Trump has had difficulty understanding the basic functions of government.
“This president is the first president in our history who has neither political nor military experience, and thus it has been a challenge to him to learn how to interact with Congress and learn how to push his agenda better,” Collins said. The report continues:
In private conversations on Capitol Hill, Trump is often not taken seriously. Some Republican lawmakers consider some of his promises — such as making Mexico pay for a new border wall — fantastical. They are exhausted and at times exasperated by his hopscotching from one subject to the next, chronicled in his pithy and provocative tweets. They are quick to point out how little command he demonstrates of policy. And they have come to regard some of his threats as empty, concluding that crossing the president poses little danger.
“The House health-care vote shows he does have juice, particularly with people on the right,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) 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.”
Needless to say, Trump wasn’t pleased with these revelations, calling them the product of “Fake News Media” and reasserting that he is in fact “totally engaged” and knows the subject “well.”
Republicans aren’t scared of Trump — nor do they really care what he thinks
Trump is used to being surrounded by loyalists. Now, as the leader of the Republican Party, he is surrounded by the congressional GOP, who aren’t willing to declare their admiration, according to a Washington Post report that showed the president is neither “revered or feared” among congressional Republicans.
“The president remains an entity in and of itself, not a part of the traditional Republican Party,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) told the Post. “I handle the Trump administration the same way I handled the Obama administration. When I agree, I work with them. When I oppose, I don’t.”
Similarly, Graham, asked whether he “fears” Trump, gave a “no” with chuckle. And it’s not just Trump who can’t keep the party in line on Capitol Hill. Chief strategists like Steve Bannon have also failed to gain the respect:
Trump’s lieutenants, by contrast, have struggled to force Republicans into line. In March, when House Republicans were slow to rally behind the health-care bill, White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon told Freedom Caucus members that they must stop waffling and vote for the legislation.
Bannon was immediately rebuffed by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who has been in the House for more than three decades. Barton icily told Bannon that the only person who ordered him around was “my daddy” — and that his father was unsuccessful in doing so, according to several Republicans with knowledge of the meeting.
In an interview Tuesday, Barton smiled wryly when asked about the incident.
“I will admit on the record that I took exception to a comment that he made,” Barton said. “There is a separation of powers, and the president has a role and the Congress has a role. That’s all I’ll say.”
Trump pitched himself as an outsider who would disrupt the natural order of Washington. Instead, it’s just become increasingly clear that lawmakers don’t really care what he has to say.
The New York Times captured the dynamic succinctly:
When asked by reporters clustered on the blacktop outside the West Wing if Mr. Trump had command of the details of the negotiations, Mr. McConnell ignored the question and smiled blandly.