President Trump clapped and pointed. He grinned and nodded. He mouthed praise and boomed exultations.
He even, at one point, turned his back to the lectern to face the House Republican leadership, tossing his arms wide in open embrace before swooping his index fingers above the crowd — as if conducting a symphony of recalcitrant lawmakers who had finally, haltingly, learned how to harmonize.
For a president deprived of signature legislation so far, Thursday’s Rose Garden ceremony for the Republican health-care plan was the sweetest victory.
Except it wasn’t a victory at all, at least not yet.
The Republican plan to dramatically scale back and overhaul President Barack Obama’s health-care law barely eked through the House on Thursday afternoon on its second attempt — and now faces the almost Sisyphean challenge of passing the Senate, where some members have already begun expressing opposition to a plan that could leave 24 million fewer people with health insurance.
Indeed, Trump’s first call after the bill passed was to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). According to a senior administration official, the president told the senator bluntly: “The ball is in your court.”
Trump watched the vote count tick up on the flat-screen television in the presidential dining room just off the Oval Office, huddled with a small group of his senior team: Vice President Pence; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser; daughter Ivanka Trump; Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist; communicators director Hope Hicks; senior economic adviser Gary Cohn; Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy; counselor Kellyanne Conway; and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is married to McConnell.
The president, said one senior White House official, was calling lawmakers right up until the vote began, thanking some and cajoling others. The legislative affairs team even set up a special phone booth in the House cloakroom so members could receive calls from the president and his deputies.
When the bill passed, the West Wing crew exchanged applause, handshakes and congratulations, but nothing over the top, said one senior administration official. Another described the mood as “businesslike.”
Nonetheless, after the House bounced the Republican health-care plan to its neighboring chamber, both Trump and House leadership had reason to celebrate — a long-coveted if tenuous win for a president for whom victory is both his primary language and most valuable currency. (One senior administration official said the White House organized the news conference partly out of “frustration” over how the bill was being covered by the media).
So they gathered on a chilly, overcast afternoon in the Rose Garden, busing over House members from the Capitol so everyone could preen and crow.
And crow they did.
A Marine quartet sat playing on the lawn — the same tableau as the day last month when Neil M. Gorsuch became a Supreme Court justice. Lawmakers snapped photos and clapped each other on the shoulder. White House press secretary Sean Spicer even raced back from his Navy Reserve duty at the Pentagon to savor the moment.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) filed in to applause, hugs and handshakes. And a legislator in the back shouted out, “Thank you, staff! Thank you, staff!” — prompting another round of catharsis for a group eager to cheer.
Trump basked in adulation as lawmakers heaped praise on him. Ryan touted his leadership, thanking Trump and Pence for “working to get this right, for getting this done and getting us to where we are.” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, heralded Trump as “a president who wouldn’t give up, a president who got engaged.” And Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told the president, “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the privilege of being on your team.”
And Trump — who earlier in the process expressed surprise at just how complicated health-care could be — also seemed momentarily in awe of the day.
“How am I doing?” he asked, before answering his own question and posing another. “I’m president. Hey, I’m president. Do you believe it, right?”
The only clear acknowledgment of the daunting task still facing Trump and the Republican Congress came when Ryan turned to the next hurdle — “We still have a lot of work to do to get this signed into law, and I know that our friends over in the Senate are eager to get to work” — and knowing, nervous laughter rippled through the crowd.
“They are,” the speaker added, almost as if trying to convince himself. “We’re going to see that work through.”
Including Trump and Pence, a dozen lawmakers and officials spoke, a snaking queue — nearly all white men — who took turns stepping to the lectern to claim their reward: cable news coverage, orchestrated by a president who values it above almost all else.
Trump is not good about handing over the microphone — or the attention — to others, but he stood patiently by as each lawmaker took a turn before the cameras. As member after member spoke, a few focusing more on the bill itself and less on showering Trump in accolades, the president seemed to wilt slightly, only to perk up after each new affirmation.
Afterward, he invited the lawmakers and key staff into the Oval Office, where many of them had never been before, and posed for dozens of individual photos.
But perhaps the clearest sign of Trump’s good mood came at the end of his remarks, when he gazed out into the crowd at his favorite punching bag and punchline and declared, magnanimously, “And, of course, I even want to thank the media.”
Then, he raised his right fist and shook it gently, in a silent victory salute.