President Trump’s first interview since the failure of the Cassidy-Graham health-care bill went to Fox News — specifically to “Fox and Friends.” Pete Hegseth, one of the co-hosts of a show that has a special relationship with the president, asked about the bill only in terms of what it had taught Trump about his party.
“The health-care bill went down in the Senate,” Hegseth said. “What about this plan makes you feel confident that it won’t meet the same fate?” He followed up by asking whether Trump had “confidence in Mitch McConnell,” if he would keep cutting deals with Democrats, and if there was any talk of a “new deal” to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“We’ll bring it [up] a few months from now,” Trump said. “We’ll vote it. It’s block grants. It’s going to be great health care.”
The interview was notable for one reason: A viewer who got most of his news from Fox heard only scant details about the contents of Cassidy-Graham. As with the previous attempts to partially repeal the ACA, the bill was covered less for its substance than as a question of whether Republicans could deliver a “win” on a key issue.
From Sept. 13, when the bill was introduced at a Capitol Hill news conference, to Sept. 26, when the Senate GOP’s leadership canceled a vote on the bill, Fox’s lead prime time shows, hosted by Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, mentioned the bill just five times. Hannity, who was part of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) push to sell the bill in conservative media, spent four segments on the bill and did focus on its broad policy changes.
“As a conservative, I always like the idea of sending stuff back to the states,” Hannity said Sept. 13, the day the bill was released, as he played back a radio interview Graham had done with Hannity.
On Sept. 18, as the bill’s sponsors said they were moving to a vote, Hannity gave viewers a short precis of its contents.
“It replaces Obamacare subsidies with block grants to the states,” Hannity said. “So that instead of a one-size-fits-all approach dictated by Washington, well, states will be able to choose how they want to spend the money. And it ends both the crushing individual and employer mandates. The massive and unaffordable Medicaid expansion will be scaled back. Insurers will have more flexibility to offer catastrophic plans, by the way, currently illegal under Obamacare, and get rid of a lot of Obamacare regulations. And by the way, health savings accounts would be expanded. Same with health cooperatives. And those are all Republican ideas and principles.”
Hannity’s pitch for the bill clashed somewhat with how Graham and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) were selling it; for example, while they highlighted the bill’s cuts in Medicaid spending, they were cautious not to describe it as a scaling-back for people who needed it. On Sept. 20, Hannity focused more on the need for Republicans to keep their word with voters.
“Republicans — they need to get moving,” Hannity said. “They need to start keeping their promises. We on this program will continue to hold them accountable until it gets done and ultimately done right.”
And on Sept. 21, in an interview with former House speaker Newt Gingrich about reasons to support the bill, Hannity added a note of caution. “I think everybody needs to see the language so we know exactly what we’re getting into,” he said. “There’s always those Washington, D.C., swamp surprises that the public finds out later. We don’t need to pass the bill to find out what’s in it, which I know you would agree with.”
Hannity’s segments made up his network’s highest-profile endorsements of the bill. Carlson’s show, the highest-rated Fox News broadcast, mentioned it only once, on Sept. 22. On that day, the president was heading to Alabama to rally for Sen. Luther Strange (R), hours after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)’s opposition to Cassidy-Graham started it on the road to defeat.
“Senator John McCain coming out against a bill sponsored in part by his friend, Lindsey O. Graham,” said Carlson. “The president apparently, and not surprisingly, will speak on that tonight. And you can just guess what he’s going to say.”
That was the extent of Carlson’s Cassidy-Graham coverage; over the two weeks the bill was alive, the show spent far more time on protests on college campuses and on the racial justice protests that broke out at NFL games after the president attacked players as “sons of bitches” for not standing for the national anthem.