THE MORNING PLUM:
President Trump likes headlines that portray him as a man of action, so he’s probably pleased with the barrage of Thursday headlines about his latest move on health care. ABC News, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and many others all inform us that Trump is “threatening” to sabotage the Affordable Care Act to force Democrats to make a deal with him on its future. “Threaten” is a verb that is laden with action, purpose, and intimations of concealed leverage and power. Awesome!
But the basic logic of this threat is extremely shaky. Here’s the problem: Trump could do a great deal of damage to the ACA if he wanted to — but it’s unclear why this would help him realize his own stated goals.
Trump’s new threat is that he will cut off so-called cost-sharing reductions, which subsidize insurance that offers lower out-of-pocket costs to 7 million lower-income Americans. For all the details, see this piece by Jonathan Cohn; the short version is that, if Trump does this, premiums could skyrocket and insurers could flee the individual markets, causing them to melt down and ultimately pushing millions off coverage. As Cohn notes, Trump is basically “threatening to torpedo insurance for millions of Americans unless Democrats agree to negotiate with him.”
Trump told the Journal that “Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” adding that “Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.” Politico quotes two senior officials further explaining Trump’s thinking:
“POTUS wants to use [the subsidies] as leverage,” the senior official told Politico. “When Obamacare fails on its own, the Dems will want to come to the table.”…
“I don’t think Trump really wants to cut the subsidies, because he’d get blamed for people losing insurance,” a White House official told Politico. “But right now, it might be his biggest way to force people to do something.”
“Dems will want to come to the table,” and this will “force people to do something.” Missing from this explanation is why this would force Democrats to the table, and to what end he hopes this will occur. The basic problem is that Trump is asking Democrats to cooperate with him to bring about an outcome that would be worse than the one he is threatening them with.
The health-care bill Trump is championing would result in 24 million fewer people with health coverage. Those people are getting insurance both on the individual markets and through the Medicaid expansion, which would be phased out, resulting in 14 million fewer people on that program. But if Trump makes good on his threat to tank the individual markets, that might bump at least 10 million people from coverage, while leaving the Medicaid expansion in place (though it would do plenty of other damage as well). Thus, Trump is basically telling Democrats: “If you don’t give me the money, I’ll shoot only one hostage, rather than both of them.”
Trump wants Democrats to willingly buy in to a worse outcome than the one he is currently dangling as a threat. But if Democrats don’t play along, he’ll likely take the blame for the fallout. A recent Kaiser poll found that 75 percent of Americans want the Trump administration to make the law work, and 61 percent say that Trump and Republicans will be responsible for any problems they cause with it. To extend the hostage analogy, Trump is threatening to kill one of the hostages in a scenario which would leave only his fingerprints all over the murder weapon.
Now, it is possible to envision scenarios in which Trump and Democrats do try for a deal on health care. That would involve both sides getting some of what they want while conceding ground in other areas. But this leads to the real problem with Trump’s threat and demand for a deal: There are no indications that Trump envisions any outcome which, from the point of view of Democrats, is less awful and regressive than the plan he’s currently pursuing.
Indeed, if anything, he and Republicans are moving in the other direction: the latest effort toward a deal would allow states to jettison ACA regulations in a way that would essentially hollow out protections for people with preexisting conditions, to win over conservatives. But this is already costing the bill more support from moderates. Politico reports that vulnerable GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, who is taking heavy fire from his Colorado constituents for supporting the GOP bill, is now saying it would be “tough” for him to support such a deal. Thus, it’s likely that the only route to a deal — as Trump himself has defined it — would require moving the bill to the left.
Getting Dems to deal with him is Trump’s own stated goal, but it’s unclear whether Trump has given a moment’s thought to what outcome such a deal would be designed to progress toward. The unnamed aide who said Trump’s threat will “force people to do something” inadvertently got this exactly right. Trump treats the word “deal” as some kind of magically irresistible end in itself. But under these circumstances, the only known endpoint — the supposed “deal” — is worse than the “threat.” Why should Dems feel any incentive to respond to such a threat?
Of course, it did garner Trump action-packed headlines. Which might be the only true goal here.
* VULNERABLE REPUBLICAN TAKES HEAT: Politico’s report on vulnerable GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s town hall meeting yesterday is eye-opening. Check this out:
[One woman] stood up to say her cousin with epilepsy would die without Medicaid, which would be scaled back significantly by the GOP plan.
“I’m sorry to say I was shocked when you declared your intention to vote for the American Health Care Act,” said Steven Haas, a 68-year-old life-long registered Republican. “That is not the way we do things here in Colorado.”
“I voted for you because I thought you’d be a leader,” said one angry constituent. “I don’t see you leading.”
The chaotic scene that unfolded Wednesday foreshadows the problem dozens of centrist Republicans will face during the 2018 midterm elections in swing districts across the country.
As Politico notes, if the White House continues to change the bill to win over conservatives, this will only grow worse for moderates.
* TRUMP PRIVATELY CRITICIZES BANNON: This week Trump said of the feud between Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner: “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will.” The New York Times adds more:
His comments in private, people who have spoken with him say, have been more pointed. Mr. Bannon, he has told one person, is “not a team player.”
It has only been two months since a Time Magazine cover touted Bannon as “The Great Manipulator.” Trump was “said to have been especially bothered” by this, the Times reports.
* SESSIONS DENIES BANNON IS BEING SIDELINED: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a radio interview, denies that Bannon’s nationalist agenda is being marginalized:
I’m an admirer of Steve Bannon and the Trump family and they’ve been supportive of what we’re doing … I’ve not felt any pushback against me or on anything I’ve done or advocated.
There’s something to this. There are no real signs that the administration’s commitment to policies reflecting Bannon’s nativist nationalism are waning, and even if Bannon goes, Sessions will still be there to keep pushing them.
* ON NATO, TRUMP HAS BEEN ALL OVER THE MAP: Trump is now effusively praising NATO. But CBS News publishes a useful roundup of all the times that Trump has blasted the organization as everything from “obsolete” to derelict in fighting terrorism. He also repeatedly charged that the United States is getting ripped off by its membership in NATO.
As CBS puts it, this criticism of NATO “was one of Mr. Trump’s most consistent messages in the months preceding his election.” It’s worth adding that critics pointed out for many months that Trump was, you know, full of it on this, and now we’re seeing that they were right.
* WHY TRUMP FLIP-FLOPPED ON CHINA: Trump is now saying he will no longer label China a “currency manipulator.” The Post has an overview of this and many other Trump reversals, noting:
His decision not to label China a currency manipulator follows an explicit and repeated campaign vow to do so. But economists and even critics of China’s economic policy have said that while the country used to intervene to devalue its currency, it abandoned that practice years ago. It would have been embarrassing for Trump, in an upcoming currency report by the Treasury Department, to allege that the Chinese were engaged in a practice they had already stopped, these experts said.
Translation: Trump’s anti-China bluster has now run headlong into facts and reality, and pretending otherwise would have been so embarrassing that even Trump had to capitulate to them.
* TRUMP ACKNOWLEDGES LEARNING SOMETHING ABOUT CHINA: In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump describes a recent private conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping:
Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”
See? Who says Trump is incapable of learning, growing and appreciating the intricacies of governing?
* THE ENERGY IS NOW ON THE ANTI-TRUMP SIDE: Republicans scraped out a win in deep red Kansas’s 4th District this week, and E.J. Dionne digs into the numbers and the meaning of the result:
The energy in politics is now clearly on the anti-Trump side. Republicans will surely notice the sharp falloff in loyalist turnout in Republican bastions. Last year, for example, Trump carried Harper County, south of Wichita, with 1,996 votes to 393 for Clinton. Estes could manage only 837 votes there, to 307 for Thompson. And energized Democrats swung big Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, from Trump to Thompson.
As Dionne notes, watch for whether this outcome emboldens Trump’s Republican critics on both the right and in the center. Next week’s special election in Georgia will tell us more.
* AND REINCE PRIEBUS FEELS PRESSURE TO ‘GOVERN’: The Post reports that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus is not feeling on top of the world these days:
Reince Priebus, the often-embattled chief of staff, is among the aides who feel growing pressure from the president to show that the administration can govern. Priebus has been telling confidants, “I’m not going to have a Memorial Day where the number one headline is ‘Republicans can’t produce a budget’ when everyone else in America can,” according to multiple people with knowledge of his plea.
Of course, the headlines could get even worse than that: by then we might have had a government shutdown.