The fate of the American Health Care Act in the House of Representatives remained unresolved on Friday morning, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that President Trump and his administration are preparing two different kinds of responses, depending on the final result. One will involve Trump taking credit for dramatically “closing the deal” with House conservatives. The alternative will find House Speaker Paul Ryan under the wheels of the metaphorical bus.
On Thursday, Trump, the self-proclaimed master negotiator, sent his budget director to Capitol Hill to announce that the president was finished negotiating with members of the House Freedom Caucus, the bill’s primary opponents within the GOP, and demanded a vote. If the bill doesn’t pass, he informed them, the president would move on to other priorities and leave them to explain to their constituents that they had failed to follow through on their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Some in the White House, late Thursday and even early Friday, were still professing optimism that enough Republicans would eventually rally to the president to pass the bill over united Democratic opposition. If that happens, it’s plain that Trump and his surrogates will claim it as proof that his supposed prowess at negotiating in the private sector has carried over into the public sector. Indeed, even the bill’s chief opponent, Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Mark Meadows, has praised Trump for going to great lengths to engage lawmakers on the details of the bill.
But privately and in anonymous comments to the press, the administration is plainly also preparing a strategy to deflect blame if the bill fails. And Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has been pushing AHCA in the House, is their primary target.
In a brief press appearance this morning, Trump was noncommittal about the bill’s chances, saying “We’ll see,” when asked if he thought it would pass, and saying that he didn’t believe the AHCA had been brought to the floor too soon. Asked if he thought Ryan should resign if the legislation fails, he said no.
However, at almost the same time, anonymous White House officials were telling reporters that if the bill goes down to defeat, the fault would be Ryan’s. One told CNN that the battle over the bill was “not Ryan’s finest hour.”
Late Thursday, The New York Times published a piece citing four White House sources who claim that Trump now blames Ryan for convincing him to support the plan to take on Obamacare as the the House’s first order of business in the new president’s term. He supposedly now wishes that he had focused his initial efforts instead on tax reform or creating a plan for new infrastructure spending.
On Friday morning, New York Magazine published a story claiming that Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, dislikes the bill Ryan brought to the floor, complaining that it was “written by the insurance industry” and that it fails to undo enough of the regulations surrounding the provision of health insurance.
Bannon’s former website, Breitbart News, which is seen as extremely friendly to Trump and is widely read by the far right, seized on the comments with a headline trumpeting “Bannon Pans Ryan Bill.”
In truth, the effort to lay the blame for the bill on Ryan has been going on since before Trump delivered his Thursday ultimatum. Last week Chris Ruddy, the publisher of Newsmax and a close friend of Trump, blasted the bill in interviews and articles for more than a week.
“I think Paul Ryan did a major disservice to President Trump, I think the president was extremely courageous in taking on health care and trusted others to come through with a program he could sign off on,” he told Bloomberg last week. “The President had confidence Paul Ryan would come up with a good plan and to me, it is disappointing.”
To longtime observers of Washington, the rush by the White House to set the stage for a “Blame Ryan” campaign seemed oddly counterproductive with the fate of the bill still in doubt.
“Maybe they're trying to pressure @SpeakerRyan & House to deliver,” tweeted David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, “but these precriminations from WH seem ill-timed.”