The timing could've been better. Donald Trump hosted a strategy meeting on health care last night with a group of Republican senators -- each of whom already agrees with the White House. Politico reported:
President Trump convened a strategy session over steak and succotash at the White House with senators Monday night, trying to plot an uphill path to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a GOP alternative.He made an impassioned pitch on why Republicans needed to do it now – and the political peril they could face if they didn't "repeal and replace" after promising to do it for years. He also vented about Democrats and the legislative process. "He basically said, if we don't do this, we're in trouble," said one person briefed on the meeting. "That we have the Senate, House and White House and we have to do it or we're going to look terrible."
What neither the president nor anyone on his team realized was that during Trump's pitch, Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), were coordinating their announced opposition to their party's plan, effectively killing the plan the president expected to sign.
At a White House event yesterday, Trump boasted, in reference to health care, "I think we're going to surprise a lot of people." Five hours later, it was the president who was caught off guard.
The Politico piece added this sentence, however, that stood out for me: "Trump has privately wondered why legislators don't seem to listen to him, and the blow from Moran and Lee illustrated the limits of the president's capacity to master the art of the Washington deal."
And while the unraveling of the GOP's health care legislation matters a great deal -- this is, after all, a life-or-death issue for much of the country -- it's Trump's failures that will continue to reverberate.
Circling back to our coverage from several months ago, Trump won an improbable election victory in part based on his ability to persuade voters that he had a unique talent. "Deals are my art form," the Republican bragged. "Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks."
The evidence to back up the boast was elusive -- no one has ever been able to prove that Trump actually excels in negotiations or deal-making -- but he kept talking about his expertise as a guy who knew, perhaps better than anyone in the world, how to seal a deal.
And then Trump decided he'd strike a deal on overhauling the American health care system. Given a chance to prove just how adept he was as a world-class negotiator and deal-maker, the Republican flunked the test spectaculalry. What emerged was a picture of a president who didn't understand the issue, didn't care to do his homework, showed no interest in policy or substantive details, wouldn't help sell his preferred plan to the public, and couldn't engage in meaningful negotiations because he simply didn't know what he was talking about.
As the health care fight unfolded, Trump was at different times passive and impatient, ignorant and demanding. In the president's mind, to lead on the issue meant barking vague orders to a separate branch of government, and then sitting back, waiting for a bill he wouldn't read or understand to arrive in the Oval Office.
The president told TV preacher Pat Robertson last week, "I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand, waiting for our senators to give it to me.... I'm sitting waiting for that bill to come to my desk."
Rolling up his sleeves, opening some briefing books, and trying to do real, substantive work apparently never occurred to him.
Amateur hour at the White House, in his case, is a chronic condition. Trump may wonder privately "why legislators don't seem to listen to him," but the only mystery is why the answer isn't already clear to him.