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GOP infighting too much for Trump to overcome for health plan

President Donald Trump said Saturday on Twitter that he still plans to pull together a great health care plan.
President Donald Trump said Saturday on Twitter that he still plans to pull together a great health care plan.
Published Mar. 26, 2017

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ignites a lot of fights, but the biggest defeat in his short time in the White House was the result of a long-running Republican civil war that had already humbled a generation of party leaders before him.

A precedent-flouting president who believes that Washington's usual rules and consequences of politics do not apply to him, Trump now finds himself shackled by them.

In stopping the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the Republican Party's professed priority for the last seven years, the rebellious far right wing of his party out-rebelled Trump, and won a major victory Friday over the party establishment that he now leads.

Like every other Republican leader who has tried to rule a fissured and fractious party, Trump faces a wrenching choice: retrenchment or realignment. Does he cede power to the anti-establishment wing of his party? Or does he seek other pathways to successful governing by throwing away the partisan playbook and courting a coalition with the Democrats he has improbably blamed for his party's shortcomings?

"It's really a problem in our own party, and that's something he'll need to deal with moving forward," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is an ally of the center-right Tuesday Group, which stuck with Trump in the health care fight and earned the president's praise in the hours after the bill's defeat.

"I think he did a lot — he met with dozens and dozens of members and made a lot of accommodations — but in the end there's a group of people in this party who just won't say 'yes,' " Cole said. "At some point I think that means looking beyond our conference. The president is a dealmaker, and Ronald Reagan cut some of his most important deals with Democrats."

Trump is not there yet. So far, he is operating from the standard-issue Republican playbook. While he is angry and thirsty for revenge, he seems determined to swallow the loss in hopes of marshaling enough Republican support to pass spending bills, an as-yet unformed tax overhaul and a $1 trillion infrastructure package.

On Friday evening, a somewhat shellshocked president retreated to the White House residence to grieve and assign blame. He asked his advisers repeatedly: Whose fault was this?

Increasingly, that blame has fallen on Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, who coordinated the initial legislative strategy on the health care repeal with House Speaker Paul Ryan, his close friend and a fellow Wisconsin native, three people briefed on Trump's recent discussions told the New York Times.

Trump, an image-obsessed developer with a lifelong indifference toward the mechanics of governance, made a game effort of negotiating with members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, even if it seemed to some members of that group, who spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity, that he did not have the greatest grasp of health care policy or legislative procedure.

He told one adviser late Friday that his loss — a legislative debacle foreshadowed by the intraparty fight that led to the 2013 government shutdown — was a minor bump in the road and that the White House would recover.

In an interview with the New York Times on Friday, Trump insisted that the administration was "rocking." The problem, he suggested, was divisions among Republicans.

There are "a lot of players, a lot of players with a very different mindset," Trump said. "You have liberals, even within the Republican Party. You have the conservative players."

But his advisers were more realistic. Trump's chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, described what happened as a flat-out failure that could inflict serious damage on this presidency, people familiar with White House discussions told the New York Times.

Bannon and the president's more soft-spoken legislative affairs director, Marc Short, pushed Trump hard to insist on a public vote as a way to identify, shame and pressure "no" voters who were killing their last, best chance to unravel the health care law.

One Hill Republican aide who was involved in the last-minute negotiations said Bannon and Short were seeking to compile an enemies list. But Ryan repeatedly counseled the president to avoid seeking vengeance — at least until he has passed spending bills and a debt-ceiling increase needed to keep the government running.

Trump decided to back down.

The president and his team lamented outsourcing so much of the early bill drafting to Ryan, and one aide compared their predicament to a developer who has staked everything on obtaining a property without conducting a thorough inspection.

Despite the president's public displays of unity with the speaker, Trump's team was privately stunned by Ryan's inability to master the politics of his own conference, two West Wing aides told the New York Times. The president, they said, is still sizing up Ryan's abilities, despite Trump's public statements of support.

Trump had told allies Wednesday night that if he did not push for the bill himself, it would not pass. Several, speaking to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity, expressed astonishment that the president had not come to that realization much earlier.

Until the final week, Trump's team was deeply divided over whether he should fully commit to a hard sell on a bill they viewed as fundamentally flawed, with Vice President Mike Pence pointedly advising the president to label the effort "Ryancare," not "Trumpcare," according to aides.

Trump brushed aside those concerns in the last few days, and embraced the conventional role as leader of his party.

After it was all over, the president dutifully blamed the Democrats, a party out of power and largely leaderless, after turning his back on their offers to negotiate on a bipartisan package that would have addressed shortcomings in the Affordable Care Act while preserving its core protections for poor and working-class patients.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter, said Friday, with a chuckle, that he was "getting some déjà vu right now."

"Do you think Donald J. Trump goes home tonight, shrugs and says, 'This is what winning looks like'?" Gingrich added. "No! But this is where the Republican Party is right now, and it's been this way for years."

But Trump put on his best face Saturday morning. "Obama-Care will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE," he said on Twitter. "Do not worry!"