Following the biggest legislative debacle of President Donald Trump’s first six months in office, the White House on Tuesday was some hands on deck.
The president’s most senior aides appeared eager to move on from the health care loss, busying themselves with their own pet projects. Counselor Kellyanne Conway spent the morning in the Cannon House Office Building, participating in a two-hour-long bipartisan roundtable on veterans and the opioid crisis.
Ivanka Trump made an appearance at a global robotics competition celebrating girls from Afghanistan pursuing careers in STEM. Meanwhile, her husband, White House adviser Jared Kushner – who has taken little interest in the healthcare bill since its early, troubled days in the House, when he went skiing in Aspen with his family – was busy leading a meeting with his Office of American Innovation.
In the West Wing, chief strategist Steve Bannon took a meeting with Wayne Berman, a Republican operative and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose name has surfaced as a potential future chief of staff. He also met with Kris Kobach, head of Trump’s voter fraud commission, and former campaign operatives David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski, among others. But he was conspicuously absent from senior staff meetings on trade and tax reform that brought cabinet officials into the White House.
If there was concern at the White House on Tuesday for the future of Trump’s first-year agenda, it wasn’t about reviving the debate on replacing Obamacare – but rather about what comes next. “The real fear is that this is where everything starts to unravel,” said a senior White House aide. “It makes things harder for the debt ceiling and it makes tax reform way harder. People are saying, “oh my god, if we couldn’t come together on repeal and replace, how are we possibly going to do tax reform?’”
For his part, the president on Tuesday afternoon was lunching with four Afghanistan veterans in the Roosevelt Room, accompanied by his National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, his attention focused on threats abroad.
It was left to chief of staff Reince Priebus and legislative director Marc Short, to hike up to the Hill with Vice President Mike Pence for a regular weekly policy lunch with Senate Republicans. There, Priebus was photographed crouching behind a trashcan in the hallway, talking on his cell phone. The conversation at the meeting, according to a White House adviser, was focused on how to move forward.
But Republicans on the Hill were skeptical of any movement on healthcare from the White House. “They’re looking at what are the wins they can get now: the border, or tax reform,” said one senior Hill aide who is in regular touch with the White House. “If they have a plan to revive healthcare, I don’t know what it is.”
And if there was any blame to go around for the major legislative defeat that some White House officials worried could scuttle the GOP’s entire policy agenda, Trump officials were eager to lay it elsewhere. “We’re not going to own it,” Trump said on Tuesday morning, speaking briefly to reporters in the White House. “I’m not going to own it.”
In his public remarks, Trump even let the Senate Republicans off the hook, telling reporters, “I can tell you, Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”
But behind the scenes, White House officials were pointing fingers at Republican leadership for a failure that puts on display Trump’s tenuous position as the leader of his party – and underscores his inability, thus far, to deliver on a legislative agenda.
Trump took a hands-off approach to healthcare, these officials argued, at the request of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made it clear to the president and his legislative team that “this needs to be an inside game” and asked the White House “not to get in the way.”
That was part of a larger effort, in the days leading up to the Senate flop, of White House officials portraying the leader of the free world as a passive participant in a healthcare plan whose passage was supposed to be orchestrated by Congress.
“We have a president with pen in hand, willing to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Conway said in an interview. "The only things that have changed since the 2015 bill vote is Obamacare has gotten worse and we have a president willing to repeal and replace it.”
But Trump’s back bencher role and inability to pressure any lawmakers to support a bill he campaigned on, is in part because of his own weakened stance, both in terms of popularity and in focus.
Trump, according to multiple sources on the Hill, was never fully steeped in the details of the healthcare bill, unable to sit down with members of Congress and convince lawmakers with substantive objections that he has better answers, or to understand their concerns and explain why the bill addressed them.
Instead, Trump outsourced the nuts and bolts of the explaining to aides like budget director Mick Mulvaney, Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price and domestic policy adviser Andrew Bremberg.
Trump, people who have discussed the bill with him said, was never happy with the bill to begin with – but he was animated by the $321 billion in savings, according to the Congressional Budget Office scoring, that he believed could be used to offset tax cuts.
Politically, Trump’s falling poll numbers are also hurting him with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have become less susceptible to pressure from the White House. A Washington Post-ABC poll released earlier this week showed Trump’s approval rating at 36 percent – an all-time low for a president 179 days into his first term, with 48 percent of respondents saying they “disapprove strongly” of Trump’s performance in office.
“If you’re stronger and more popular, you can influence more people,” said Joel Benenson, a pollster and former strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and for President Barack Obama. “You have more political capital to spend. What’s he going to do, whether it’s Gov. [Doug] Ducey in Arizona, or Gov. John Kasich in Ohio – what political muscle does he have to sway people? He is now lacking the political firepower beyond the base.”
While Trump officials have shrugged off the polls, arguing that his support with the base remains strong, that doesn’t translate to passing legislation in Washington. “People in Congress understand those poll numbers,” said Benenson. “Who is quaking in their boots about the next tweetstorm? Winning your base is not getting you 52 Republican senators. You don’t win in Washington by playing base politics.”
Though the White House played virtually no role in crafting the Senate bill or in negotiating with the various factions within the Republican conference, Priebus is seen as the West Wing aide with the most to lose in its defeat.
“He pushed healthcare first,” one senior administration official told POLITICO in the weeks leading up to Monday evening’s Senate blow-up. “He owns the outcome.” Another senior West Wing aide noted dismissively that “the goose was cooked with the first House bill – and that was Reince and his friends.”
Priebus, White House officials said, was less involved in the Senate healthcare bill than he had been in pushing House Speaker Paul Ryan to bring the House bill to a vote.
The president – who for weeks has been calling around asking friends for advice about how to replace his chief of staff – did not on Tuesday immediately blame Priebus for the bill’s cratering. But White House aides say there’s a broader sense that the former Republican National Committee chairman has failed to leverage his relationships on Capitol Hill on Trump’s behalf, including his close friendship with Ryan – the main qualities that made him an attractive hire back in December.
It was Priebus, White House officials said, who originally persuaded the president that Ryan had the votes to pass a healthcare bill all lined up, and assured him of an easy passage.
For weeks, Trump has been grilling friends about potential replacements for Priebus but one hold up in finding an appropriate successor is the structure of his White House. At least one person turned down the job, according to a source, after telling the president there were too many competing power centers in the West Wing for him to be successful in the post.
“Reince Priebus has not been empowered, and that’s really on Trump,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a study of how chiefs of staff help define the presidents they work for, dating back to President Harry Truman.
“Trump has failed to learn what all of his predecessors have found out, sometimes the hard way – you have to empower a White House chief of staff to get stuff done. You can’t hand the football to Mitch McConnell and say, go do it,” Whipple added. “This is a debacle, and it’s just the latest example of the most dysfunctional White House in modern history.”
Additional reporting by Tara Palmeri.