There is still urgency in his efforts, just markedly less Trump. And the administration is being cagey about its branding.
“I’ll let others provide a description for it. I prefer to call it patient care,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said this week with a slight smile, when asked whether he sees the plan as “Trumpcare.”
Absent, for now, are the skewering tweets, the raging news conferences and the combative speeches. Instead, Trump is quietly courting wary conservatives in private meetings and keeping himself somewhat out of the picture as party leaders and his Cabinet officials defend the plan.
Trump is spending time listening to critics and on-the-fence lawmakers as they vent, which is what he did Wednesday evening when right-wing leaders stopped by and when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his wife joined Trump later for dinner, White House officials said. The president also may travel to Kentucky on Saturday, shining a spotlight on the bill’s most dedicated Republican foe, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — though Paul says he is not budging.
“He has leaned all the way in and has had a deft touch,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said. “We’ve had an open-arms, olive-branch, politely-nod-your-head mentality.”
Trump’s approach is driven by the sensitivities of the moment in his young presidency and on Capitol Hill, where Republican majorities have pledged to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health-care law but where there is little consensus on how to do it. Attuned to the fact that health care represents his first major political test — and knowing that failure on the issue could define his term — Trump wants to spend time with key political stakeholders before he mounts an all-out public campaign for final passage, the officials said.
They also said Trump is willing to negotiate specifics of the legislation and to tear up parts of it if need be, telling aides and congressional leaders that he views the initial bill as malleable.
“He’s certainly open to negotiation,” Paul said in an interview. “He’s genuinely interested in what conservatives have to say, knows there is still room for agreement.”
But Paul wondered whether Trump would remain an avowed advocate for the proposal in the coming weeks. “The leadership is selling him a bill of goods and has mischaracterized to him the amount of opposition,” he said. “The speaker keeps saying the votes are there and the president could end up being annoyed.”
Congressional Republican leaders said Wednesday that they are comfortable with Trump’s tactics. They described him as a president who was driven by success more than ideology and who was willing to let others take charge on aspects of the process.
“He’s all in,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who met with Trump on Tuesday with his whip team, said in an interview. He said Trump is unwilling to accept a stalemate but is willing to be patient with Congress.
“His message was how important it is to get a bill to his desk, to make sure it happens,” Scalise said. “He’s talking to members on a regular basis, and some really important changes were made last week based on those conversations.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has perhaps the closest friendship of any congressional leader with Trump, said Trump’s role is to be the heavyweight presence who comes in late and closes the deal in both chambers.
“Look at his history, it’s getting deals done,” McCarthy said. “He likes people, he doesn’t sleep much and works all the time. He asks a lot of questions and as we narrow it all down, he’s in the mode of let’s find the sweet spot, figure out what works, and let’s get this done.”
McCarthy said he expects Trump to eventually hold more public events or rallies since “he can help explain it” to the country.
But for now, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday, Trump is focused on meeting with Republicans and conservatives. “The president understands as a businessman that if someone has got a really good idea, then he’s going to listen to it,” Spicer said. “We’re going to go out and, as I said, in full sell mode, but if there’s an idea that comes across, we’re going to entertain that.”
One influential bloc that Trump plans to woo in the coming days is the Freedom Caucus, the dozens of hard-liners in the House who often clash with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and have been critical of the Republican plan. For any health-care legislation to pass the lower chamber, many of them will need to be won over, according to the assessments of most leadership staffers.
One of its founders, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), said the White House has reached out, and other members said some of them may end up bowling with White House officials, a classic gesture made by presidents past.
But those invitations have not led members of that caucus to fall in line. Like Paul, they see a fluid debate.
Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), a freshman member of the group, argued that “the product that gets rolled out first is rarely the product that gets voted on.”
Vice President Pence has met this week with two top leaders of the Freedom Caucus, and director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney — a former caucus member — spent more than an hour at a Tuesday night meeting of the group.
One member of the House Republican whip team, who was among a group of lawmakers who visited with Trump on Tuesday and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss tactics, said there is a shared understanding between the White House and House leaders that the bill as currently crafted represents the best chance to pass health-care legislation through the House — and for now, the White House and House GOP leaders are offering dissenters carrots, with the sticks to follow if needed.
“If need be, they’re ready to drop the hammer on some people,” the member said. “There’s a lot of people enjoying being on cameras, but at the end of the day, you want to be part of the team. You don’t want to be on the outside looking in.”
A White House official echoed the sentiment: “If we need to bring in the big gun, we’ll bring in the big gun,” meaning Trump.
Club for Growth President David McIntosh, who attended the Wednesday evening meeting at the White House, said his group remained opposed to the GOP health-care plan but was heartened by Trump’s pitch for a multiphase legislative process in which further reforms would be likely after the first phase was finished.
“He said, ‘I wish they’d done a better job explaining the three phases; then, maybe you’d have realized some of your issues are being taken care of,’ ” recalled McIntosh. “The president asked us, ‘Don’t be all doom and gloom, and against getting this done.’ ”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, on Wednesday told a lunchtime crowd organized by America’s Health Insurance Plans that the Republican strategy left plenty of room for error.
“They’re discovering that there are slightly more ‘absolutely no [votes]’ than you can afford to have,” he said. “Something will get signed into law. I don’t have a clue what it will look like. I don’t think they do either.”
Trump’s plans for a sales trip remain unclear, too. “I haven’t been invited to anything yet,” Paul said late Wednesday of Trump’s potential stop in Kentucky. “We’ll have to see what ends up happening.”
Mike Debonis and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.