President Trump had a message about his stumbles on Wednesday night: We should've done it my way.
“This is a watered-down version of the first one,” Trump said. “And let me tell you something: I think we ought to go back to the first one and go all the way, which is what I wanted to do in the first place.”
In the same speech Trump also seemed to briefly lament the fact that, for his first big legislative fight, he is burning time and political capital on health-care reform. That's an effort that isn't exactly going swimmingly, with many Republicans balking. He suggested he would have liked to do tax cuts first instead.
“I want to get to taxes. I want to cut the hell out of taxes,” Trump said. “But before I can do that — I would have loved to have put it first, I’ll be very honest — there’s one very important thing that we have to do, and we are going to repeal and replace Obamacare.”
This isn't totally new territory for Trump. He has pointed the finger elsewhere before — including directly at staff and even military generals.
Back when Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed in a Trump-approved raid in Yemen during his first week as president, Trump offered comments that seemed to suggest it was the generals who were responsible.
“This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do,” Trump said. “ And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do -- the generals, who are very respected.”
Trump continued: “And they lost Ryan."
On a far less significant scale, during a news conference last month NBC's Peter Alexander confronted Trump about his blatantly inaccurate claim that his 2016 election win was “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan.” Trump explained that his staff had given him bad facts.
“Well, I don't know,” Trump said, “I was given that information.”
Trump has also, a time or two, pointed to something staff did that he didn't particularly agree with. After White House press secretary Sean Spicer reportedly brought in staff to check their phones and find out who was leaking to the media, Trump said he wouldn't have done that.
“Sean Spicer is a fine human being. He's a fine person. I would have done it differently,” Trump said. “I would have gone one-on-one with different people, and we don't have a major leak process here. We have a major leak process in government. But I would have handled it differently than Sean. But Sean handles it his way, and I'm okay with it.”
These could be excused as offhand comments from Trump. But the subtext is pretty clear: He's not afraid to subtly and not-so-subtly distance himself from things when they go south. He's not necessarily saying others did things wrong — just that he might have done it differently and that perhaps he's not really to blame.
The counter-argument to that, of course, is that he's president. He gets to say and push for what he wants, and he gets the final say. The idea that this world-class dealmaker and businessman is some shrinking violet who is being prevailed upon by his staff and the generals to do and say things he would rather not doesn't really add up. If Trump truly wanted to push tax cuts before Obamacare repeal, he could have made that push and tried to convince House Speaker Paul Ryan to go along with it. And Trump was the one who signed that second travel ban executive order — not his staff. The buck stops here, and all that.
It's also got to be somewhat disheartening to his staff to see the president publicly suggest they made the wrong call — and to House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose health-care effort Trump seems to suggest wasn't really his first priority. Ryan needs buy-in from Trump to pass the bill, and Trump suggesting he would've rather done taxes first suggests he's not terribly gung-ho about seeing this process through. (Trump, for what it's worth, did otherwise sound very much on-board with the health-care bill on Wednesday.)
We're perhaps reading into these comments a bit, but it's very rare to see a president publicly suggest he'd have done things differently than his team ultimately did. And even if you don't consider it throwing his staff under the bus, if nothing else it's basically telegraphing the fact that things aren't going well.
Which might be the most significant takeaway of all.