In healthcare defeat, President Trump learns a costly lesson that could imperil his agenda

Share via

Driven by an obsession for a quick win and failing to grasp the complexities of an issue that has bedeviled politicians for generations, President Trump learned last week that the negotiating tricks and power plays he honed in business don’t translate into the messy world of Congress.

“Political experience is a hard teacher,” said Rick Tyler, a former advisor to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “It gives the test first and the lesson later.”

Trump’s failure to push through the GOP-led overhaul of the Affordable Care Act could deeply wound his relationship with Congress and undermine his ability to pursue other items on his agenda, including rewriting the tax code, constructing a border wall and launching a $1-trillion program to rebuild the nation’s bridges and other infrastructure.


A vote on the measure was abruptly halted Friday when it became apparent it did not have the support needed for passage.

People around Trump have said he is motivated by a desire to fulfill campaign promises as quickly as possible.

But haste and the failure to build consensus, particularly among Republicans, helped sink Trump’s first major legislative initiative, much as it derailed his travel ban for nationals of several Muslim majority countries and for all refugees, which federal judges have temporarily blocked.

We know this wasn’t the No. 1 item on the president’s agenda, and it’s not an issue where the White House led.

— Rep. Carlos Curbelo, Florida Republican

No promise was as big for Republican lawmakers as repealing Obamacare, an issue on which they had campaigned for seven years and a vow Trump repeated throughout last year’s campaign. Trump hoped that by fulfilling it quickly he could unlock a storehouse of items that were higher on his agenda.

But excessive speed was not the only problem.

Trump, uninterested in details and eager to close a deal, left the impression with some members of Congress that he could make big changes as the vote was closing in, only to find out the politics made them untenable.


Members of the holdout group of conservatives known as the House Freedom Caucus attended one pivotal meeting before the vote with Vice President Mike Pence and other top Trump aides, believing they were headed into a negotiating session. They left upset, complaining that all they got was a “rah-rah” session.

Michael Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action for America, a leading political force on the right, described the initial bill unveiled in early March as “an incoherent set of policies that didn’t have a constituency” in any faction of the GOP. When he described his concerns to the president directly in the Oval Office, he said, he found Trump “extremely open to suggestions.”

“The president was ill-served by a process that was not nearly as open to improvement as he was,” Needham said.

The new president also met a new reality that he had not encountered in the business world: a multitude of politicians, each with separate constituencies, power bases and political requirements. In business and in government, he has shown a strong preference for dealing with one person at a time.

Many lawmakers said they appreciated Trump’s efforts to make the sale. But others were clearly frustrated.

“We know this wasn’t the No. 1 item on the president’s agenda, and it’s not an issue where the White House led,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who holds one of the most vulnerable seats in Congress and supported the bill in committee. “The bill was born in the House with very little input from the administration because they just weren’t ready.”


Moreover, Trump was trying to retrofit a complex system with a set of tweaks that had little ideological consistency.

“Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated,” he told the nation’s governors a week before the GOP legislation was released — a remark that startled virtually everyone who had ever touched the subject and encapsulated many of the problems he encountered.

Forty minutes after the healthcare bill was yanked amid chaos on Friday, Trump framed the loss in educational terms, and issued a veiled threat to those members of his party who let him down. “We learned a lot about loyalty, and we learned a lot about the vote-getting process,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “And we learned about very arcane rules in both the Senate and the House.”

Even before the fight ended, Trump’s allies were pushing blame to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who led the drafting of the bill and the effort to corral support, as the president insisted publicly that he still had full confidence in Ryan.

Breitbart News, which has close ties to the administration, ran a banner headline Friday afternoon asserting that lawmakers and White House officials were “openly discussing finding a GOP replacement” for Ryan.

“He presented the president with a damaged bill of goods,” Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend who publishes the conservative website Newsmax, said in an interview. Trump “deferred to the House. They’ve been handling this issue a lot longer than he has.”


Ruddy, a sharp critic of the bill, called its failure a blessing for the new president, believing the long-term political consequences of passage were worse than the short-term damage of defeat. Trump made the same argument in the aftermath, insisting Democrats would pay the price.

But that wasn’t the case Trump made earlier to recalcitrant lawmakers in his own party. He had pleaded with archconservatives to pass the bill, promising changes to appease them even after Ryan had suggested that such changes would undermine the legislation’s difficult political balance. Trump issued ultimatums that he failed to back up and told lawmakers that anything short of passage would endanger their reelection hopes.

He made something else clear that everyone in his party already knew: Failure would imperil the rest of the GOP agenda, dimming the party’s confidence that it could come together to govern after eight years working as the opposition party to President Obama.

“It just got harder,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.).

Trump’s lack of a deeply held ideology and his low poll numbers made his sales job with lawmakers tougher, said Tyler, the Republican advisor. He had not fought prior political battles with these lawmakers, raised money with them or campaigned on their behalf.

“You can’t get this kind of thing done on the weight of your personality,” he said.

Trump is more familiar with the negotiating style of the real estate business in which he was raised, where the dynamics may have appeared more clear-cut than in Washington. Trump believed he could win the best deal by seeking out the most powerful person in the room and dominating him in a one-on-one, said Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer. That formula translated well in the presidential campaign, when Trump successfully picked off his chief Republican rivals, and then Democrat Hillary Clinton, one at a time.

As a candidate and president, Trump has made the same case for international trade, dismissing multilateral pacts as bad for the country while insisting he could win more concessions from adversaries in isolation. But that approach is impossible in Congress, especially in a Republican Party that is balkanized into factions that have been unable to coalesce around a single set of principles.


“Congress, there’s 535 people with their own power bases,” Blair said. “That’s a lot of moving parts. And it has seemed like the aphrodisiac of power — with Trump in charge of all three branches — people would go along. But there’s that versus 535 individual constituencies that these guys and gals need.”

Some Republicans insisted that anything short of a complete repeal of Obamacare would signal surrender to the liberal agenda they were brought to Washington to battle. Others worried that constituents who have grown accustomed to subsidies and Medicaid under the current system would foist their own political rebellion if that were taken away. And all of those factions had to live under Trump’s own ambitious promise that he could create a system that was at once cheaper, more accessible and higher in quality — all without busting the federal budget.

Trump tried to remain philosophical Friday as he told reporters that he would move on to his other priorities. It seemed as if he was taking a lesson from the bestselling book “The Art of the Deal” that launched his international reputation as a savvy deal-maker.

“I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,” he wrote. “I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”

But the book offered a note of caution that may serve Trump as he makes his next pitch to Congress.


“If you can’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”

Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro, Brian Bennett and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.

Twitter: @noahbierman


Violence erupts at pro-Trump rally in Huntington Beach

Meet Indivisible, the young progressives leading the resistance to President Trump


Failure of their healthcare bill leaves Republicans running Obamacare. That could open the way for bipartisan changes