ROBERT COSTA: I’m Robert Costa. I’ll tell you about my conversation with President Trump and the future of health care, tonight on Washington Week.
A consequential week for President Trump and his administration. He faced a Republican revolt over health care.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) I will not sugar-coat this. This is a disappointing day for us.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We were very close. It was a very, very tight margin. We had no Democrat support. We had no votes from the Democrats.
MR. COSTA: His FBI director testified that Mr. Trump was wrong when he accused his predecessor of wiretapping.
FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY: (From video.) The department has no information that supports those tweets.
MR. COSTA: His former campaign manager agreed to talk to a House committee about his financial ties with a Russian businessman. And the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said U.S. agencies may have inadvertently collected communication by members of Trump’s transition team. Yes, it was that kind of week. Plus, President Trump explains his unique relationship with truth and consequences.
We make sense of it all with Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times, Michael Crowley of POLITICO, and Philip Rucker of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week.
Once again, from Washington, Robert Costa of The Washington Post.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump wasted no time blaming the failure of the Republican health care bill on Democrats. He called me moments after House leadership pulled the bill from the floor to say he didn’t blame Speaker Ryan, they just came up short.
SPEAKER RYAN: (From video.) I told him that the best thing I think to do is to pull this bill, and he agreed with that decision. We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future. I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to replace this law.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer because now they own Obamacare. They own it, 100 percent own it. And this is not a Republican health care –
MR. COSTA: Republicans spent eight years, let’s remember, making promises to replace the Affordable Care Act with a better, cheaper health plan. Why couldn’t they close the deal, Phil? And how big of a political crisis is this for President Trump?
PHILIP RUCKER: It’s a huge defeat, really a remarkable moment here in Washington. The Republicans finally have the majorities in the House and the Senate, and they control the White House. This is what they all campaigned on, and yet they couldn’t get the deal done, in part because the issue is so complicated. They spent three weeks negotiating to try to appease the conservative members of the House, to try to win over the moderates, and they just couldn’t figure out something that would work on this issue. And so now we have the Affordable Care Act staying for the foreseeable future.
MR. COSTA: And Yamiche, we always hear about the hardliners, the Freedom Caucus, and President Trump talked to me about that tonight on the phone, but it was also the moderates. They had a lot of concerns about how Medicaid would be changed.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, part of it was really important and kind of remarkable about today is that when they were trying to make deals with the Freedom Caucus and trying to take out things like requiring companies to cover maternity or requiring them to cover hospitalization, they were bleeding out on the other side and their moderates were saying, no, this is what I need, this is what my constituents need. So I think that what you saw, really, is a convergence of all these – of this Republican Party that has never really been straight the Republican Party anymore. There was so many tweaks to this party, and now it’s I think in some ways a group of people that have markedly different agendas.
MR. COSTA: Michael Crowley, you look at Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist. He goes to the House last night and he says the president wants a vote, he wants everybody on record, yes or no, are you with him on his first major legislative test, and they pull the vote. What does that tell us about Bannon?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, I think there’s a great irony here, which is delicious for a lot of people who are not Bannon fans, which is this is kind of a monster that Bannon created when he was running Breitbart, the conservative news site. He was instrumental in whipping up conservative members of the House in particular against their leadership, you know, and saying revolt, don’t take half-compromises, and was – played a significant hand in John Boehner’s demise as House speaker. And now the monster that he unleashed on the countryside has come back to get him. And even his own personal lobbying, trying to talk down these people that he was riling up a couple years ago, wasn’t enough. So it’s just one of those ironies in Washington and one of those topsy-turvy things about the Trump presidency that is our new reality.
MICHAEL SCHERER: I think we have to get beyond saying that there’s Republican control in Washington. There’s no coherent Republican Party in Washington. And what we discovered today is functionally there’s no governing control, that when we talk about Republicans in the House we’re talking about at least two very different parties with very different priorities who are operating with no allegiance when it comes to taking votes with each other, and I think that has huge implications. This wasn’t just a failure on an energy bill or a transportation bill or something like this. This is the defining issue of what Republicans have been running on for four elections now. This is the thing that every time Donald Trump got up on stage he said we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare and the crowd went wild.
MR. COSTA: Michael, you spent a lot of time talking to President Trump yourself this week, but let’s unpack this moment a little bit. I mean, it is – this is what he wanted to get through Congress. So President Trump calls me cold on the phone and he starts immediately turning on the Democrats. He says it’s the Democrats’ fault – Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, he’s blaming them. But as we got past his partisanship, he started talking about, you know what, if Obamacare in his view “explodes” – that was the word he kept using – maybe he could come back, take it off the shelf in a year, and actually craft a bipartisan bill with Democrats. And I said, would you be more comfortable with that? Because my sense is always covering President Trump that he’s kind of a non-ideological Republican. And he said, well, a lot of people say I’d be better cutting a deal with the Democrats. So what does this tell us? What’s next on health care, on everything? Is this – is he going to continue to be lockstep with Speaker Ryan, or can we expect a new kind of President Trump, Phil? I want everybody on this.
MR. RUCKER: You could absolutely see a new kind of President Trump. I think it’s going to take some time. I think he wants to get to tax reform first. He’s got this big infrastructure plan. He wants a trillion dollars in spending on roads and bridges. He wants to get through those other agenda items before returning to health care. But you could see him taking a different approach. And the failure this week is not for lack of trying by the president. He tasked himself as the ultimate dealmaker, the chess master. He was going to put all the pieces together, and he just couldn’t do it.
MR. SCHERER: You know, I wonder if there comes a point where he just discovers – you know, with tax reform it’s not going to be much easier. I mean, what the House is proposing with tax reform is like a massive reimagining of how we do corporate taxation, with unpredictable effects on currency. I mean, that’s a difficult thing to get through Congress when you have huge majorities or bipartisan. And I wonder if there’s going to be a point really soon where he says – he turns to his people and says, why am I losing because of these 30 people in the Freedom Caucus? Why don’t I just do something else? Because he’s not –
MR. COSTA: Why doesn’t he turn to infrastructure?
MR. SCHERER: He could.
MR. CROWLEY: He could. But, you know, people have been talking about tax reform for a long time in Washington and it has a way of never getting done because it’s really hard. So if that’s the thing you’re going to move on to for some relief, I mean, that is not an oasis in the desert.
And I would also say this is a reflection of Donald Trump having a – like not having a specific campaign platform, not being an ideological guy. There’s a certain flexibility that comes with that, but also, you know, if you had a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush as a nominee, they would have had a much more specific health care plan. They would have had a repeal and then this is what we’re going to replace it with, at least guidelines that you start kind of funneling the political conversation into. But when you just show up, no one’s expecting you to get elected, you don’t have policy papers, this is what happens. It’s total anarchy. And I don’t think there’s a lot of reason to think that it’s going to work out much better on something –
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, will Democrats play ball?
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s the thing that I was – I’m literally thinking about that, and thinking, the Democrats that I talk to, especially the freshmen House Democrats, are saying I don’t want to play ball with you. And we what we really want is single-payer health care because what we’ve seen is one party basically go all the way to the right and say exactly what they want. And now we’re saying, OK, we had Bernie Sanders, he was so successful. Why don’t we just lay out what we want, which is a single-payer health care system?
So I think that when I was listening to Donald Trump sometimes on the campaign trail, and covering him, sometimes he sounded like a Democrat, promising universal health care, promising all these things – things that the Freedom Caucus would completely not get behind. So I don’t think Democrats are going to then turn around and say, well, what we’re going to do is hand Donald Trump a win by supporting some form of health care that he comes up with.
MR. COSTA: Let me ask you, how much do you guys believe that Speaker Ryan and Trump still have an amicable relationship? I asked the president repeatedly: Do you blame Speaker Ryan? Are you frustrated? And he said, I don’t blame Paul. And he kept saying, I don’t blame Paul. But how much does this fray the White House-congressional relationship, Michael?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it can’t be good. I would focus on something else, which is the attempt to say the Democrats own Obamacare now. I mean, there’s just something preposterous and desperate about that spin. I mean, duh, right? To say now this is Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s problem, it just seems to have it backwards. There was – there were high expectations that this was going to get done. Republicans voted to repeal Obamacare something like two dozen times give or take before they came into power. Their base is going to be really upset about that. I don’t think they’re going to buy that line.
MR. COSTA: Let’s dive into the details real quick. A major concession the Trump administration gave the Freedom Caucus, the hardliners, was the elimination of 10 what they call essential health benefits that insurance companies are required to cover under the Affordable Care Act. Those include hospitalization, maternity care, prescription drugs, and mental health and substance abuse coverage. And so we see the Republicans moving in this right-wing direction on health care, getting rid of these rules and these benefits. So what’s next on health care? Could they do something piecemeal, Michael?
MR. SCHERER: I think there is a coherent intellectually honest conservative view of how health care can be better. And it hasn’t really come out in this debate just because of the way it’s gone. But the idea is that you allow people to get insurance for exactly what they want. And you allow for very high deductibles and then tax benefits for the money you spend underneath those deductibles. And you make health care much more of a normal, competitive marketplace.
And so this is part of that theory, that if you’re 25 years old you shouldn’t be buying health benefits that would apply to a 65-year-old. Or, more controversially, if you’re a man you shouldn’t be buying health benefits for – that apply to a woman or a woman for a man. It’s not something I think they have sold to the American people. And I think there’s a problem that the House Republicans and the conservative movement has sort of gotten all wrapped up in their own ideologies, their own ambitions, and they have not actually made the case. They’ve said: Obamacare is terrible. We’re going to get rid of Obamacare. But they haven’t made the case for what this vision is they want.
MR. COSTA: What is that – and what does the Republican Party look like when they’re not railing against the president’s – Obama’s health care law?
MR. RUCKER: It’s a problem. They spent eight years being the party of no, trying to stop President Obama. Now they’re the party in charge, they have to govern. It’s incumbent upon them to make things happen. And they’re not able to do it so far. And one of the problems with the policy issues that you just mentioned a moment ago, they’re not popular with the American people. And had this bill even passed the House, it would have gone to the Senate. Even Republican senators were probably not going to support it because they represent states like Ohio or West Virginia or Florida, where, you know, people are not going to want to see those changes in their coverage.
MS. ALCINDOR: Even today, when I was talking to a Republican shortly before the bill was pulled, and I was asking him about something simple as maternity care. And he was saying, well, I shouldn’t have to pay for maternity care. He was a young Republican. And I said – he said I shouldn’t have to pay for it unless my girlfriend’s trying to have a kid or we’re trying to have a kid. And I thought to myself, and I said to him, I said, well, what if she gets ovarian cancer? What if there’s some unforeseen thing where you have to go to the OB/GYN and it’s related to the fact that she has kids – has to have kids? And he just paused and said, hmm, I’m not sure about that.
And I thought to myself, if this is your message and this is what you want, if you can’t explain it to me as a reporter, how are you going to explain it to the American people? And these, I think, are really simple things for people to understand. When you get to tax reform and other things, people might sit back and say, well, what does that really mean. When you tell women, look, I don’t think that men should have to pay for what you have because you’re a woman and you should pay for more health insurance, that’s kind of incredibly hard to sell.
MR. COSTA: When I asked the president is there any lesson learned, he paused for a second and he said: Just another day in paradise. (Laughter.) I said, can you be a little more reflective? And that was about it. He said, talk soon. So have we learned anything about this art of the deal? He says he’s the dealmaker. Can he – can he recover?
MR. RUCKER: I mean, Bob, you and I were both talking this week with senior White House officials in the days leading up to this failure. And they were so confident that this deal would happen. They called President Trump the closer, that he could, you know, cut deals in real estate. This was his specialty. He was the chess master. He was bringing people into the Oval Office, on Air Force One, dinners, trips to the bowling alley in the White House. And they thought his personal charm would get the votes. And it just didn’t – it didn’t work. People were charmed by him, and yet they still held to no.
MR. COSTA: And one thing I’m looking at this week, I’m sure you are too, the fallout. How does this affect Bannon, Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, Vice President Pence, all these people who were so consumed with the negotiations and trying to get it passed. But let’s not forget, the week began with a different type of drama on Capitol Hill.
FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee that President Trump was wrong when he accused President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. He told lawmakers, there was simply no evidence to support Trump’s tweeted allegations. Days later, the chairman of the Committee went rogue. Devin Nunes of California visiting the White House to inform them of some new intel reports that may have captured communication by Trump’s transition team.
The administration has neither apologized nor backed down from the president’s unsubstantiated remarks. Instead, they have doubled down. That prompted The Wall Street Journal editorial page to raise questions about Mr. Trump’s credibility, describing, “the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.” TIME Magazine’s cover story about the president’s views on facts and falsehoods asks the provocative question: Is truth dead?
Michael Scherer, you interviewed the president, you wrote this story – powerful story, because you tried to draw the president out on this cloud that’s over his presidency about how he engages with the truth, about these stories he picks up and talks about information.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah. So we are journalists and we think of truth and falsehood as basically a binary. We have to get our stories right. They have to be true. And if they’re wrong, we have to correct them and fix it. Donald Trump, President Trump, has never really engaged with that same topic in the same way. He sees it as a negotiation. And he’s constantly trying to maneuver around.
And, you know, he spoke about truthful hyperbole in his business career. Obviously in you’re in real estate and you’re selling a condo, you’re upselling constantly and exaggerating. And he still does it. So even when Comey comes before Congress and says there is no evidence to back up this claim, Trump’s response is to negotiate. He says, well, I was saying it wiretapping in quotes. And, by the way, The New York Times wrote a story a while ago, they used that word, “wiretapping.” And by the way, did you see what Devin Nunes said today, even though he didn’t say anything was illegal like I said in my text. That’s something to look at.
And then the other point he was making to me is that I should get credit for the other things I have said in the past that have been disputed that have later come to be true. And he pointed to the fact that he had tweeted about Anthony Weiner’s sexting coming back to haunt Hillary Clinton, or he had predicted Brexit would happen in England, or he had predicted that he would win the presidency. And again, that’s part of the negotiation. He’s saying, well, even if this is factually not true now, that’s not important. What’s important is I have great instinct, I know what’s going on here. And it’s just a totally different model for how a president would deal with these issues. And it’s just the way it is for him.
MR. COSTA: Is this why the White House and a lot of top advisors at the White House are so cagey to counter the president when he makes these types of claims?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think so, because they’re not – you don’t want to be seen as, one, pushing back on your boss. But, two, you don’t want to be seen as kind of really, I guess, defining a truth that he’s not comfortable with, or even seeing as though that you’re not completely and utterly going onto the truth that he has, and really signing up to say whatever the president says is the truth is the truth at that moment, because you see that in his aides they might say one thing and then they hedge themselves, or they’ll completely just back off and say, you know, this is what – this is what it should be. And really not at all – I feel like they’re really following his lead in the fact that there’s no apology, there’s no backtracking, there’s no even saying, well, we might have got that wrong or we might have had bad information. There’s none of that.
MR. COSTA: What’s the consequence of all this storm of different things coming out? You had Director Comey’s public testimony, Phil, calling out the president’s accusations. And then you have Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman. He’s coming out with his own version of events about possible surveillance on Russia, even though Comey said there was no wiretapping of Trump Tower. It’s a confusing, sometimes incoherent, barrage of information. And how do you think the White House is handling it all?
MR. RUCKER: It is. Well, I think there are two consequences here. One is, after Comey’s testimony – sworn testimony by the way – the president’s credibility is damaged. I mean, he insisted that Obama had ordered this wiretapping. He didn’t just accuse Obama of ordering it. He insisted it as fact, and he reasserted it again and again. And he even said evidence would come out to prove him right. We now have the FBI director saying that’s not true.
The other consequence is this Russia issue is going to hang over the White House for many months to come. We now have Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, they’re all going to be going to the House Intelligence Committee to testify. This investigation shows no sign of ending. Comey indicated in his testimony it would go on for a long time.
MR. COSTA: Michael Crowley, what did you make of Comey’s testimony?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it was a double black eye for the White House. You know, for Comey to shoot down the tweet, and then to say very significantly that the FBI investigation includes the possibility that Trump associates were cooperating with the Russians. You know, let’s – there’s been a lot of attention on the tweets and the process and the kind of depressing fight in the House Intelligence Committee makes you wonder whether Congress can really investigate this.
But it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, that the U.S. intelligence community thinks that there was a sophisticated Russian operation to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. And no one can prove that it did swing the outcome of the election, but no one can prove that it didn’t. It was a narrow – it was a narrow election. And the FBI’s investigating the possibility that people around Trump were partnering with basically the Kremlin, maybe indirectly. I mean, that is just mind blowing, would be the biggest scandal in American politics in generations.
And so that to me is actually the bigger story, Comey saying that they are pursuing that line of investigation. And subsequently there were some fresh leaks. CNN had a story kind of advancing that a little bit farther. They had a source, presumably in the intelligence community or FBI, saying that there was – there was evidence that was leading some investigators to believe that this was really a real thing, that it wasn’t just an open question, we’re looking at it, but actually that they had their teeth into something that suggested there had been some collusion. And, you know, you just can’t even game out the consequences of that being demonstrated.
MR. COSTA: And there’s this appearance, this volunteer idea by Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, to come before the House Intelligence community in the – Committee in the coming days, it shows that the Russia issue continues to linger over the Trump administration. Will Manafort, Michael Scherer, be able to clear up anything on this front?
MR. SCHERER: I think Manafort’s volunteering is a sign that he thinks it’s better to face his accusers directly than to allow what’s been going on for three months now with Manafort, which is this drip and drab of little stories of new business contracts he had. I mean, he’s had a very long relationship with people in Eastern Europe and Russia. It continues to come out. It’s all at this point smoke. I mean, there’s nothing that has come out about Manafort that is clearly criminal. But there’s so much smoke and it keeps coming out. I think his lawyers and him have decided it’s better to just put it all on the table.
I think if we step back, the bigger question here is: Donald Trump was able to, in his business career and as a candidate, cut a lot of corners, and he got away with it because he was incredibly talented in other ways. When you’re president, it’s a lot harder to cut corners.
And the takeaway for me of the Comey testimony on Monday was this guy is going to figure out what happened. I mean, the FBI director made very clear that I’m going to keep working on this until I know exactly what happened, and then he suggested – we don’t know if he’ll say everything – but a lot of that will be made public at some future point. And so it’s different than in a campaign. In a campaign, if you say – if you do a crazy tweet about the ex-president, the FBI director isn’t up on the Hill the following, you know, month saying it’s false. When you’re president, the stakes are just higher.
MR. COSTA: We keep wondering if the president’s going to change, but you look at how he handled truth and consequences: defiance in his interview with TIME Magazine. You look at how he’s reacted to health care: defiance again, blaming the Democrats. How does this all fall out in Washington, Michael?
MR. CROWLEY: Look, I think Trump does himself no favors on this Russia stuff in particular by saying these things that are proven to be untrue, that are sort of off the wall, because there’s no trust around this White House. And then you compound it with the fact that Michael Flynn at a minimum misrepresented his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Jeff Sessions at a minimum forgot about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, there’s a – there is just a credibility gap. And I just keep saying if this White House would just give an inch or two and acknowledge some of the facts out there, and maybe even say yeah, you know, some of these – there were some contacts, in hindsight they don’t look great, but people, we were not collaborating with Vladimir Putin, come on – but there’s just total denial. Hey, look over there; make up a new storyline about wiretaps. And I just think it fuels suspicion and it makes – it gets Democrats like Adam Schiff riled up today they’re hiding something.
MR. COSTA: Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Let’s talk about Nunes for a second. He’s the House Intelligence Committee chairman, California, a major Trump ally. His credibility is being questioned just like the president’s, Phil.
MR. RUCKER: It is, and you have Democrats saying that he is acting more as a Trump surrogate than as an independent sort of leader of this Intelligence Committee and of this investigation, and he’s handling it very differently than the senator who – the Republican senator, Burr from North Carolina, who’s leading the Senate Committee.
MR. COSTA: Who’s so quiet.
MR. RUCKER: Very quiet and very kind of removed, above the fray.
MS. ALCINDOR: I also think, to go back to your question about this idea of what does this mean for Washington, it’s one thing to have Republicans maybe look at Donald Trump and say, OK, he was an inexperienced politician, he was an amateur, he likes to tweet. It’s another thing to say can I trust this person; if he tells me something, can I actually deliver on things. Is he going to then – if I deliver this health care bill for him, is he going to turn around and give me what I need in tax reform? It cuts away not just at his credibility, but really at his – at his political capital and his ability to get things done. And ultimately that’s how he’s going to be judged. And I think that’s also how he’s going to judge himself, ultimately, because even when he goes back and forth with this truth, Donald Trump has to understand that today was a(n) epic fail, and it played out on all the networks that he likes to watch. And that’s – I think that’s going to sit with him and it’s going to make him think hard about what the next steps are going to be.
MR. COSTA: Michael, is there anyone when you interviewed the president and you’ve been around the White House who can actually influence President Trump when it comes to how he handles some of these controversial issues and bits of information that float his way?
MR. SCHERER: I think what happens in the White House more often than not is that it ends up being a team effort. You need to have a group of people come together at the same time.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to see what happens next week. Thank you, everybody.
Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about President Trump’s meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus and this week’s confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching. Have a great weekend.