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Trump keeps weirdly claiming he has the votes to repeal Obamacare

It sure seems like he doesn’t.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Donald Trump has decided to respond to Senate Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare this week by ... claiming that they haven’t failed at all.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, Trump has repeatedly claimed that Republicans “have the votes” to pass the Graham-Cassidy health care bill. However, he continued, they’d end up short if they voted this week because one supportive Republican senator happens to be sick, which means they’ll miss a deadline to use the budget reconciliation process and will have to wait for next year to make another attempt.

Trump laid out his narrative in the morning on Twitter, then in a brief press gaggle on the South Lawn of the White House, and then again during a speech on tax reform he delivered in Indiana Wednesday afternoon.

All this, though, would apparently come as news to the bill’s author, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who flatly stated that “we don’t have the votes” during a press conference Tuesday.

And indeed, with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Susan Collins (R-ME) all publicly opposed to the bill, it seems that Trump’s claim to have the votes isn’t true. At least one of them would have to get on board for the bill to pass.

There’s been no indication of a deal that’s won over any of them so far. It is of course possible that such a deal will eventually be cut — along with a deal that wins over Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), another holdout — but it certainly doesn’t seem to have happened yet.

What is the president talking about?

Here’s what Trump said during his speech on tax reform Wednesday afternoon:

We have the votes on Graham-Cassidy. But with the rules of reconciliation, we're up against a deadline of Friday, two days. That's just two days. And — yes vote senator, — we have a wonderful senator, great, great senator, who is a yes vote, but he's home recovering from a pretty tough situation. And with so many great features, including all of the block granting, the money to the states, etc., etc., our health care plan is really going to be something excellent. It's going to be better managed for the people that it serves. Having local health care representatives is far better than having health care managed from Washington, DC. Not even a contest. [Applause] And many, many governors, as you also see, have agreed with us and approved it and really look forward to running it properly.

But again, because the reconciliation window is about to close, we have to wait a few months until it reopens before we take a vote. So we're getting all of the good signs from Alaska and the others to repeal and replace Obamacare. And I was hoping this would be put on my desk right after we won the election, and I'd come in and sign, but didn't work that way. And a couple of people that — I won't say anything. But early next year, when reconciliation kicks back in, in any event, long before the November election, we're going to have a vote and we're going to get that through, and I think we'll actually get it through very easily, and the time makes it easier.

As I’ve written, it is entirely possible that Republicans will revive their Obamacare repeal effort next year. And indeed, Trump said today that he hopes to do this in January or February, after he’s signed tax reform into law. (After that, the Senate can pass a new budget resolution that sets up the majority-vote budget reconciliation process for health reform again.)

That makes sense. But Trump’s claim that he already has the votes is much more surprising and difficult to parse.

First off, the sick senator Trump is referring to appears to be Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). Though he is not in fact in the “hospital” as Trump claimed, Cochran is reportedly back home in Mississippi recovering from a “urological issue.”

Cochran’s absence this week would indeed likely prove fatal to Republicans on the health bill. But neither Graham, Cassidy, nor Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed to Cochran’s absence as pivotal — Trump appears to be the first one to mention it.

Furthermore, it seems the Senate GOP would have been short of votes even if Cochran could attend, with McCain, Paul, and Collins all opposed and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski undecided. (With Democrats united in opposition, three Republican “no” votes is enough to sink the bill.)

So why is Trump claiming that he has the votes in his pocket and was only foiled because of Cochran’s absence?

One possibility is that Trump is simply exaggerating or lying to avoid looking like a failure. Perhaps he feels he’ll look more effective if he claims he was a hair’s breadth away from success and was only foiled by a happenstance illness completely out of his control.

A second possibility is that Trump has been given bad information about why the bill failed. Subordinates hoping to avoid a presidential tongue-lashing might claim that they were extremely close to winning over Murkowski and perhaps Paul, and that it was merely Cochran’s unexpected illness that foiled them. (“We're getting all of the good signs from Alaska and the others,” Trump said.)

Finally, since he is the president of the United States and all, we should probably admit it’s at least possible that there is a secret deal of some kind — perhaps a private commitment from Murkowski or Paul that they’d be supportive if a version of the bill including various provisions is brought up later, which would mean the vote truly was derailed by Cochran’s illness.

This certainly doesn’t seem to be the case, since it contradicts the public statements of the holdout senators, the bill’s supporters, and, well, pretty much all the reporting on this so far. What appears more likely true is what everyone else is saying — they just couldn’t get the votes.