clock menu more-arrow no yes

Barr’s confusing testimony about Trump’s latest push to overturn the ACA, decoded

There’s a reason the attorney general sounded unenthused about the Trump administration’s new position on Obamacare.

Attorney General William Barr Testifies To House Appropriations Committee On Capitol Hill
Attorney General William Barr arrives to testify on Capitol Hill on April 09, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Attorney General Bill Barr reportedly opposed the Trump administration’s sudden move to say the entirety of the Affordable Health Care Act is unconstitutional, and he didn’t do a very good job of hiding it during a hearing on Tuesday before a House appropriations subcommittee.

Asked repeatedly by Democrats to justify the Trump administration’s new position — one that would result in 19.9 million Americans losing their health care if the lawsuit succeeds — Barr seemed to downplay the lawsuit’s prospects.

As Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) grilled him about the prospect of people losing coverage as a result of the rollback of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, Barr turned the tables and asked him: “Do you think it’s likely we are going to prevail?”

“Well, you’re devoting scarce resources of your department toward that effort, are you not, Attorney General?” Cartwright responded.

“We’re in litigation. We have to take a position,” Barr said. “I’m just saying that if you think it’s such an outrageous position, you have nothing to worry about. Let the courts do their job.”

Cartwright said on Twitter that he interpreted Barr’s comments as saying he doesn’t expect the lawsuit to be successful.

Later, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) expressed frustration that Barr ultimately supported the Trump administration’s decision to take a position he personally doesn’t seem enthusiastic about.

“What you’re saying is that if you disagree with the president, if your legal experience and your expertise doesn’t agree, and your president says something different, you’re obligated to agree and enforce what the president says,” Lawrence said. “Is that what you’re telling me as the attorney general of the United States of America?”

Barr pointed out it is his job to take the position of the administration, even if he disagrees with it, prompting Lawrence to conclude: “Sir, I’m very concerned at this point ... I am very concerned with your statement.”

During a subsequent exchange with Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL), Barr went as far as to use the word “hokey” to describe how critics view his stance.

“If this was such a hokey position to take, what are you worried about?” Barr said to Crist.

“I didn’t say that. Those are your words, sir,” Crist replied.

“I’m a lawyer. I’m not in charge of health care,” Barr said. “The president has made clear that he wants a strong health care legislation, and he wants to protect preexisting conditions in the event that the court accepts the legal arguments that we’ve presented.”

“He worries about it so much so that he’s pursuing a case that would take it away from them,” Crist concluded. “The irony of that is rich.”

The Trump administration is trying to get Obamacare ruled unconstitutional in its entirety

In December, a conservative federal judge in Texas ruled the entire ACA is unconstitutional in a lawsuit brought by Republican state attorneys general, which argued that when Congress got rid of the individual mandate, the entire law should go because the government can’t enforce a zero-dollar tax.

Leading up to that ruling, the Trump administration only supported part of the attorneys’ general position. But on March 25, it abruptly changed its position when three top Justice Department officials sent a brief letter to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that says “[t]he Department of Justice has determined that the district court’s judgment should be affirmed.” In other words, the official position of the Trump administration was that the courts should upend the entire law, resulting in tens of millions of Americans losing their insurance.

“Because the United States is not urging that any portion of the district court’s judgment be reversed, the government intends to file a brief on the appellees’ schedule,” the letter adds.

Barr was not a signatory to the letter. Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Burgess Everett reported that he and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar opposed the move, but were overruled by a White House faction led by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney:

Barr also opposed the decision and now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of running the department that leads the new charge against Obamacare. His opposition was based in part on skepticism among conservative lawyers about the wisdom of seeking to overturn the law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court in 2012 upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which the current lawsuit is once again challenging. The attorney general, who was confirmed only a month ago, was overruled by the White House.

As Vox has explained, since the March 25 letter, Trump has said that he expects the GOP “will soon be known as the party of health care,” even while his administration’s budget proposal contains drastic cuts to overall health care spending that would result in tens of millions of Americans losing coverage.

It’s also something of a galling political move — the push to repeal the ACA was one of the most unpopular policies that Republicans pursued during their two years of total control of Washington, and there’s evidence that it was a driving factor in Democrats gaining control of the House.

The Trump administration requested on Monday that the appeals court expedite the ACA case by scheduling oral arguments for the week of July 8.

“Prompt resolution of this case will help reduce uncertainty in the healthcare sector, and other areas affected by the Affordable Care Act,” the Justice Department said.


The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.