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Politics

The week the wheels fell off in Trump’s Washington

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(LAT)

For six months and change, the Trump administration has careened down a bumpy road, seldom far from a crash. This week, the wheels fell off.

The precise moment could be seen on nationwide television by anyone still awake — 1:29 a.m. in Washington, as Sen. John McCain of Arizona walked to the well of the Senate, stood in front of the clerk’s desk, stretched out his right arm and turned down his thumb, squashing the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare.

For Trump, who had campaigned loudly, but ineffectually, for the repeal, the defeat jeopardized an entire legislative agenda. It came toward the end of a week in which his administration had never felt weaker or more riven with self-defeating factions.

Good afternoon, I’m David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

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THE END OF REPEAL?

The collapse of the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which Noam Levey and Lisa Mascaro have chronicled step by step, unfolded with a dramatic suspense Congress rarely provides.

On Tuesday, with McCain having flown back to Washington and the Senate from Arizona and his treatments for brain cancer, and with Vice President Mike Pence in the presiding officer’s chair to cast the tie-breaker vote, the Senate voted 51-50 to begin debate on the repeal bill. Among Republicans, only Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted no.

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After the vote, McCain spoke briefly, reproaching his fellow senators for excessive partisanship.

“Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues,” he said. “We’re getting nothing done, my friends. We’re getting nothing done.” He warned that while he had voted to let the debate start, he would oppose the repeal bill, at least in its current form.

Some called him a voice of conscience, others a hypocrite for denouncing partisanship even as he joined a near party-line vote. Many wondered where he would end up.

Over the next 36 hours, Senate Republicans proved they could not agree on a repeal plan. By votes of 43-57 and 45-55, they rejected the two leading options that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had painstakingly negotiated.

One would have repealed the Affordable Care Act, installed a new system and made huge cuts in Medicaid. The other, pushed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and backed by the network of conservative organizations funded by the wealthy Koch brothers, would have repealed the law in 2020, theoretically giving Congress time to come up with a replacement.

Both would have led to tens of millions of Americans losing healthcare coverage, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

By the time the second plan lost on Wednesday afternoon, McConnell had begun rallying support for a fallback, a so-called skinny repeal that would have eliminated only a few parts of Obamacare, most notably, the mandate that requires people to pay a tax if they don’t buy health insurance.

Almost no one liked it. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for one, called it a “fraud,” a “disaster” and “the dumbest thing in history.” But, he and other Republican senators said, they would vote for it so long as House Speaker Paul Ryan would guarantee that the House wouldn’t pass it.

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That otherwise bizarre position made sense, they said, if one looked at the skinny repeal not as a potential law, but as the opening gambit for a House-Senate conference committee to develop an alternative.

Ryan provided a written statement, followed by a reassuring telephone conference call. It got Graham’s vote.

For McCain, however, it was not enough. When he walked to the Senate floor shortly after midnight, most Republicans thought he was with them, but it soon became apparent he was not. GOP leaders stalled for 45 minutes as they lobbied first him and then Murkowski, to no avail. When the roll was called, both joined Collins in the vote to kill the bill.

All of this likely will be discussed on the Sunday shows, too. Follow our coverage on the Essential Washington blog.

The prospect of repeal isn’t dead. Republicans have made it the centerpiece of their campaigns for seven years, so it won’t fully die so long as the GOP controls both houses of Congress. But for now, it is seriously stalled. So can Democrats and Republicans turn, instead, to a bipartisan compromise?

There are reforms that both sides almost certainly would find acceptable, but the political pressures pushing them apart are huge.

As Mascaro noted, McConnell, in his remarks after the vote, pointedly turned his back on the Democratic side of the Senate, addressing only his members. And, yet, she also wrote, after that was over, Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington, the chair and ranking Democrat of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over most healthcare legislation, sat and talked about the next steps.

There are real problems with our healthcare system that are only going to get fixed if we work together,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who also stuck around to talk with Republican colleagues.

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“Now the hard work begins.”

WHAT IT MEANS FOR TRUMP

Healthcare repeal was the linchpin of the White House legislative agenda. Without it, the other major elements, including tax reform and the much-delayed infrastructure bill, get harder.

But all week, President Trump seemed oddly sidelined and distracted.

Periodically, Trump would fire off a message on Twitter, to little effect.

“Go Republican Senators, Go! Get there after waiting for 7 years. Give America great healthcare!” he tweeted as the final vote approached.

Senators largely ignored him.

Some administration efforts were even less productive: On Thursday morning, Alaska news organizations reported that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had warned the state’s two senators that Murkowski’s opposition to the healthcare bill could endanger federal support for important state projects.

The call and attendant publicity pretty well guaranteed that Murkowski would not bend, even if she had been inclined to.

The net result: The Senate GOP is more deeply divided than ever, senators have seen they can defy the White House and survive, and Republicans find themselves seven months into the legislative session having accomplished almost none of the major work they set out to do.

The House heads off on recess today, the Senate will follow suit in a week or two. When they return, they will have only a short period to pull together and avoid both a government shutdown and a crisis over the federal debt limit.

AN ADMINISTRATION OF FEUDING TRIBES

Rather than focus on healthcare, Trump spent much of the week indulging himself in fits of pique directed at U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.

In tweets all week, Trump openly taunted the former Alabama senator, who was among the first prominent Republicans to endorse Trump and, for a time, appeared to be the most influential member of his Cabinet.

He called Sessions “beleaguered” and “weak” and declared that he was “disappointed in him.” He, in fact, did everything except the one thing he has clear power to do to a Cabinet officer — fire him.

As Joe Tanfani wrote, Trump seems to blame Sessions for the widening investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election.

In Trump’s mind, Sessions’ decision to step aside from overseeing the investigation — a move that career Justice Department ethics lawyers said was obviously required because of his role in the campaign that is under investigation — amounted to a betrayal.

If Trump was hoping the attorney general would pull the pin on himself, he miscalculated. As the week went along, conservatives and Sessions’ Republican former colleagues increasingly rallied to his side.

Graham warned there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Sessions. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley said there was “no way” his panel would hold even a hearing this year on any replacement nominee.

Sessions, himself, clearly calculated that if he just avoided taking the bait, Trump would eventually move on to some other target.

“It hasn’t been the best week … for my relationship with the president,” he told the Associated Press in a brief interview during a trip to El Salvador to talk about anti-gang efforts.

But, he added, “I share his agenda.”

Sessions made efforts all week to demonstrate that. He announced new efforts to withhold some federal money from so-called sanctuary cities. He talked up efforts to crack down on immigrant gangs, notably the Salvadoran MS-13, which Trump plans to highlight in a visit to Long Island, N.Y., today. (Barbara Demick took this look at recent MS-13 murders on Long Island and their political impact.) And his aides let it be known that new efforts against leaks — another Trump preoccupation — were in the works.

And then, just as one might have predicted, Trump’s gaze did move elsewhere — this time to a longtime punching bag, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

Rather than torment Priebus personally, as he did with Sessions, Trump used his incoming communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, as a cat’s paw.

But Scaramucci may have prosecuted his brief with a bit too much zeal. First, he fired off a tweet falsely alleging that his personal financial disclosure form had been leaked, for which he blamed Priebus. It wasn’t leaked; it became public routinely, as disclosure forms are supposed to.

Then he called into CNN’s morning show and held forth for a half hour, comparing his relationship with Priebus to Cain and Abel and comparing the White House staff to a fish that “stinks from the head” — with the chief of staff, not the president, expressly being the target.

Later, the New Yorker published an account of a phone call Scaramucci had made to the magazine’s Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza in which he profanely denounced both Priebus and Steve Bannon, the White House strategist, calling the one a “paranoid schizophrenic” and the other a self-promoter taking advantage of the president’s popularity.

As Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett wrote, the spectacle was vintage Trump — the reality show competition among subordinates that he loves. But the chaos clearly eclipsed the White House’s nominal agenda, blotting out, for example, most attention to an event Trump held in which he hailed an investment in Wisconsin by Foxconn, the high-tech manufacturing company.

Priebus and Bannon opposed Trump’s idea of giving Scaramucci the communications director’s job. Sean Spicer quit as press secretary rather than work for him. The week’s events started to display what it was that worried them.

Priebus and Sessions are not the only high-level appointees whose tenures may be shorter than expected. This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to tamp down speculation that he might resign of out of frustration, Tracy Wilkinson reported.

A TRANSGENDER BAN OR NOT?

In the midst of all that, Trump fired off three tweets in mid-week that seemed to reinstate a ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. As Bill Hennigan reported, the declaration took the Pentagon by surprise, and White House officials were unable to say how it might be implemented.

By the next day, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., was making clear the Pentagon would not implement it any time soon. The Defense Department would await formal, written guidance from the National Security Council, officials said.

And in Congress, a parade of leading Republican senators, including some of the most conservative, said they rejected Trump’s idea, suggesting that Congress might move to overturn it before it could take effect.

TYING THE PRESIDENT’S HANDS

To cap off the week, the House approved a Senate-passed bill that would prevent Trump from altering a list of sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea.

As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, the bill broke with a longstanding tradition of giving the executive branch wide discretion in carrying out foreign policy. It was a notable sign of the growing willingness of Republican members of Congress to slap down Trump, especially on Russia-related issues.

Scaramucci and other White House officials made a show of saying that Trump might not sign the bill, but given the overwhelming margins by which it passed — 98-2 in the Senate, 419-3 in the House — supporters would seem to have the ability to override any veto.

APPEAL TO THE BASE

With his agenda stalled, the Russia investigation spreading and his staff at war with each other, Trump’s strategy seems increasingly to appeal only to his core supporters, Bierman wrote.

He has repeatedly played on the resentment that many of his voters feel toward elites, Cathy Decker wrote, putting himself at war at times against the very concept of expertise.

It’s a defensive approach, one that could work, if all else fails, to hold the one-third of the Senate needed to defeat an impeachment. But it’s not an approach likely to right the cart any time soon.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS

Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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