ROBERT COSTA: Repeal, replace, revolt. President Trump rallies rebellious Republicans to get behind an overhaul of Obamacare, but many conservatives, Democrats and health care providers are rejecting the plan. I’m Robert Costa, and we’ll talk Trumpcare and WikiLeaks, tonight on Washington Week.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) This is the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare. The time is here. The time is now.
SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From video.) The bill that’s been introduced is Obamacare-lite, and conservatives across the country aren’t going to accept it.
MR. COSTA: President Trump’s skills as a dealmaker will be put to the test as he faces Democratic and Republican resistance to the GOP’s replacement plan.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) It’s really a cruel bill that the Republicans have put forth, and it will increase the number of uninsured in our country.
MR. COSTA: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers prepare to investigate the current president’s claims that the former president wiretapped his campaign.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) I will take up that challenge. Either they are lying to me, or there is no information, and I don’t believe they would lie to me about this.
SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): (From video.) Donald Trump is destroying the credibility of the office of president 140 characters at a time.
MR. COSTA: And the continuing fallout from WikiLeaks posting thousands of top-secret CIA documents.
We cover it all with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Margaret Brennan of CBS News, and Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week.
Once again, from Washington, Robert Costa of The Washington Post.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The House Republican health care plan to replace Obamacare cleared two major hurdles in Congress, but a wall of conservative resistance remains. And most Americans just want to know: How will it affect me? Here are some basics of the proposal. Young people would be able to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26. Insurance companies would have to cover people with preexisting conditions and offer essential health benefits like preventative care. And there would be no annual or lifetime coverage limits. But the House plan would not require people to purchase coverage, and employers would not be required to provide affordable insurance to employees. Also, federal subsidies for out-of-pocket expenses would be eliminated. In addition, the expansion of Medicaid that was part of the Affordable Care Act would end in 2020.
It’s not just Democrats, though, who oppose the plan. One of the president’s strongest supporters is telling fellow Republicans to slow down.
SENATOR TOM COTTON (R-AR): (From video.) There’s no urgency here. There’s no deadline. We need to get health care reform right. We don’t have to get it fast. I think we just need to take a pause, and to deliberate more carefully and more openly, and get to a result that’s actually going to make health care more affordable and more hassle-free for Americans.
MR. COSTA: Peter, I just keep wondering throughout this rollout, who owns the Republican health care plan? Is it congressional Republicans or President Trump?
PETER BAKER: Well, you showed the picture of Professor Ryan giving us a lecture – (laughter) – about what’s in the plan and what’s not in the plan, so clearly, obviously, he is the owner of and author of this plan. But ultimately it’s going to be President Trump because he’s the one who is out there promising the people of America he was going to repeal and replace Obamacare. It’s his party and his White House and his administration. So he has to step up at this point and take ownership of it, or he’s going to find himself in a place he doesn’t really want to be.
It also is key to so much that he wants to do from here on in his domestic agenda. If he can’t get this done, what does that mean for tax reform, overhaul of the tax code? What does it mean for the budget?
And so they’ve set themselves an extraordinary schedule to try to get this done. There’s very little sense at this point they’ve got the consensus to do that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And everyone in the Republican Party seems to want to repeal and replace Obamacare, but no one wants to put their name on it, with the exception of maybe Paul Ryan, who’s left with the whiteboard and drawings there. But part of that’s because there is such a high political cost to getting something like this wrong because, regardless of party, when you start hitting people’s kitchen tables or their health care plans, that will matter to them when they go and vote in 2018 in some of those down-ballot races. So there’s a high cost to that.
However, what’s so interesting is that you’re trying to sell something that’s not fully written as yet. It’s not clear why there is such a push so quickly by the White House to get this done when you don’t even know the cost to taxpayers yet, and we’ve already had the White House sort of setting expectations that it might have a bigger price tag attached from the official estimates from the Congressional Budget Office than they might like to see.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Part of that push, though, for getting it done so quickly is because he – and I say President Trump – overpromised in some ways you could think the fact that he was going to get this done very quickly. So all of his supporters are saying, look, we want to see you do something quickly, we want to see you affect our lives. And this idea is that they know that this is a political liability because the vast majority of people that are benefiting from the expansion of Medicaid are college – non-college-educated white people in rural areas. So if you think about it, this policy is something that goes not just to someone’s kitchen table, but really it goes into the car with them, it goes into their parents, it goes into their – to everything about their lives. And this is also something that is not very hard to understand in terms of health care – what you need to do, how you need to pay for it. I think – so I think they are really, I think, up against a timeline in that Donald Trump wants to look like a winner, and if they don’t get this done it could really just blow up in their faces.
MR. COSTA: And it seems like so many insiders in Washington are wondering, will the Freedom Caucus, these conservative hardliners, come along? But the key question is, what do people out in the country actually think? And you look at this Medicaid expansion and how it’s going to be rolled back under this plan. How are people reacting in the country to this? It seems like a lot of governors are frustrated with the idea, and it could have real consequences for a lot of people.
MR. BAKER: It does have real consequences for a lot of people and, as Yamiche is just saying, a lot of people who in theory are Trump base supporters. You know, if his – if his message last year was populist and, you know, it’s the working class has been left behind by the wealthy in America, well, they’re going to be left behind even further if they don’t have health care coverage because 20 million people have it today that didn’t have it before, about half of them on the Medicaid expansion plans. If that goes away, that’s 10 million people, roughly, who wouldn’t have it.
You know, having said that, there’s a lot of people who are offended at the idea that government should be providing free health care to people who have jobs and who work but don’t make much money, that that’s the market, that they should be out there on their own. And there’s this really essential tension inside the Republican Party between this philosophical belief in limited government and the sort of electoral message that Donald Trump succeeded with last year.
MR. COSTA: That’s a great point. Margaret, I mean, you’ve been focusing a lot in some of your reporting on Vice President Pence. He’s going to be going on the road this weekend to try to sell the plan, and he’s been trying to sell it to conservatives. But is President Trump, who’s not really as ideological as his vice president, is he more open to negotiation here?
MS. BRENNAN: Perhaps. I mean, he’s going to have a working weekend at the White House, but he hasn’t seemed, at least up to this point, to be actually negotiating on this. It seems to be more Vice President Pence who has emphasized that he was in Washington before, he knows this sort of how to make the sausage process. And he’s the one who’s going to be the face out there this weekend with some of those Republican governors like you talked about, particularly in Kentucky, where the Republican governor has been very skeptical, agreeing with Rand Paul, the senator whose clip you played at the beginning of the program talking about this being dead on arrival, Obamacare-lite because he doesn’t like some of the tax credits there. That’s a state where there are about 500,000 people who are on Obamacare in some form or fashion, and that transition is something that they’re really going to have to get right. So pressuring the constituents to support it when their representatives do not is a really interesting sales proposition for Mike Pence to be in this weekend, and the president’s going to be doing his from behind closed doors.
MR. BAKER: Well, and in fact, it’s funny that they’re doing the opposite roles, right? You assume Pence as the insider who can do the negotiation, and that Trump is supposed to be the salesman, right? That’s his great strength, is getting out there, big rallies, thousands of people, getting them ginned up. We haven’t seen him do that yet on this issue.
MS. BRENNAN: Not on the detailed items like that.
MR. BAKER: He’s supposed to go to Nashville in the coming week, so he might do it then. But at the moment he’s not gone out front publicly and made a big push for it.
MS. BRENNAN: He’s talked more about the drawbacks of Obamacare, this urgency. This has got to get done because Obamacare’s going to be –
MR. BAKER: Yes, right. It’s collapsing.
MS. BRENNAN: – collapsing in this year. And that’s what he said in his remarks today. When – the one event that the press was allowed into with the president today, he talked about that, but none of the details of what is actually in the proposal.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, what about the popularity of Obamacare? It’s very popular in some parts of the country. And Democrats think they can pressure Republicans in town halls.
MS. ALCINDOR: They feel that they can pressure Republicans in town halls, but also the Tea Party was birthed in some parts out of the fact that people were really upset that they were forced to have this mandate to buy health insurance. So while there are some people that were very excited about the idea that they could keep – that they could keep their children on their plans, you had a number of people – and I would say a number of Trump supporters who I talked to – who were very, very angry about this idea. You talk to people who have small businesses, who said I couldn’t afford this, that this was forcing me to buy insurance for my employees when I couldn’t have it. So I think that in some ways the Democrats forcing them somehow to not do anything to Obamacare I think is not going to happen.
But I think that in some ways if you – if you think about the fact that they’re calling it Obamacare-lite is really interesting to me because I see on the horizon the Republicans saying, we tried to fix Obamacare and we just couldn’t get it together. It’s not Ryancare. It’s not Trumpcare. It’s just Obamacare 2.0. (Laughter.) And I think that that to me is really interesting. You think about the idea that they’re talking about the CBO and trying to already say, like, they’re going to be wrong about that. And I think to myself, OK, it’s because you know that they’re going to come out and say millions of people are going to lose their health insurance. And that’s a nonpartisan body that Trump is already going up against.
MR. COSTA: That’s such a key variable. The Congressional Budget Office is going to come out with this score for how much this legislation actually costs next week, and that could upend the whole process.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it could. And as Margaret said, we’re already seeing the president and the White House starting to discredit the organization, before it’s even weighed in, which is a habit and a pattern basically with this president. If any institution, you know, challenges him or provides numbers that he doesn’t like, suddenly it’s because they’re rigged, it’s because they’re dishonest, they’re fake media, what have you – until they put out numbers that he likes, in which case he holds them up as the exemplar of all knowledge.
MS. BRENNAN: Like the jobs number today.
MR. BAKER: The jobs number today, exactly. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: And look at the opioid crisis across the country. A lot of people who are dealing with that addiction are on Medicaid. And Trump ran on trying to help some of these people. And do you think the White House is really thinking through all the trickle-down effects this kind of legislation could have on his own base?
MR. BAKER: Nobody knew health care would be this complicated. That’s what the president said. (Laughter.) Well, actually, a lot of people did, of course. But he didn’t, because he’s never been a policymaker. It’s very easy as a businessman to be out there and say this system stinks, for all the reasons Yamiche just said. I don’t like the paperwork. I don’t like the cost. It’s going to – it’s going to put me out of business. It’s another thing to be a policymaker in Washington, dealing with all the different constituencies, putting them together into something that is coherent and affordable.
MR. COSTA: So talking about coherence, what is in this bill? I mean, most critics of the bill are framing it as a lot of tax credits that are going to help Republicans. It has individual health savings plans. What are people supposed to take away from the legislation, policywise?
MS. ALCINDOR: I was talking to a lot of liberal – I should say – liberal think tanks today, asking them kind of what is this – what is this – what’s the bottom line of this plan for you? For them, they say that this tax – these tax credits amount to you taking away – or taking away health care from working class and poor people and giving rich people tax cuts. Now, of course, that’s the liberal take on it. But this idea is that they’re saying that you’re essentially going to be pushing people off of health insurance and saying, look, you should be able to afford this on your own. So that, I think, was a large takeaway from the experts I was talking to today.
MR. BAKER: And I think part of the issue here is, as you said, did Donald Trump overpromise? What he did was he said: We’re going to keep the parts of this plan you like, and we’re going to get rid of the parts you don’t like. Well, the parts you do like are expensive. And the parts you don’t like are how we pay for it. So you know, they’re now in this conundrum of trying to figure out how to make this work on a balance sheet.
And they haven’t gotten to the part, which is really essential, which is how do you drive down health care costs overall? President Trump says that’s coming next. It’ll be about competition. There’ll be able to open up state boundaries and people will actually find that prices will come down. But for all the reasons you just said, people can’t afford, in a lot of cases, the – you know, a marketplace insurance plan, because it’s just too much.
MS. BRENNAN: And that’s what’s so interesting about the sales job on this for the president who was – while he talks about real estate – really a branding guy. They’re trying to sell something now that they’re telling you is not fully written yet, doesn’t have a cost associated with it yet, but making promises to groups like some of the more socially conservative groups that the vice president has been meeting with that once we get it fully formed you will get what you want – i.e., we will do things like defund Planned Parenthood. And we will do things like continue the ban on using federal funds for abortions. It’s sort of a we’re not there yet, but we promise we will get you there, just sign on now to what is partially written. And that’s a very hard proposition for many of these groups. So we’ll see if they get there.
MR. COSTA: And it’s complicated. I spoke with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy this week. And he kept coming back to the idea that this will be done in phases and people will get what they want down the line. But first, they need to get the votes for this.
Beyond health care, the White House was working overtime to answer questions about President Trump’s allegation – an allegation made without evidence – that President Obama wiretapped him during the election. Margaret, you’ve been focusing a lot on this from the White House press room this week. And you had an exchange with Sean Spicer, the press secretary, where it didn’t seem clear – and it really didn’t seem clear all week to a lot of people – where the White House actually stood on the president’s comments about President Obama.
MS. BRENNAN: Well, I think where we ended up was that the White House doesn’t have any evidence, and has admitted it doesn’t have any information from the Justice Department that would back up the president’s claim. They say, well, that’s yet to come, and it’ll come out through the Intelligence Committee hearings that will be later on this month related to Russia. But it puts all the aides at the White House in a very uncomfortable position, because the line continues to be the tweet stands for itself and that we should take the president at his word.
So if we do that, as reporters, take the president at his word, then that leaves you with the president implicating himself as part of some form of investigation that would legally give the grounds for him being wiretapped. And that’s where I got into it this week with Sean Spicer in trying to answer that question. And the Justice Department did not give those assurances to the White House, even though the White House would have led many to believe in saying that the Justice Department was not conducting an investigation.
MR. COSTA: Why didn’t they? Why didn’t FBI Director Jim Comey speak out on this? Why was he quiet?
MS. BRENNAN: Well, it – what we know from reporting is that he did actually want to speak out on this, and had asked the Justice Department to do so. We know behind closed doors that he has given assurances to – in classified settings, so we don’t know exactly what was communicated – but what we’ve been told is that he said this was patently false. Now, why he didn’t come out? I think – (laughs) – the FBI director has had many reasons to reconsider publicly speaking out. He was very much criticized for doing so immediately before the election. But March 20th he’s going to be one of the people up there on Capitol Hill testifying. And that question will no doubt be asked. It’s going to be interesting to see how the White House handles his answer.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think that one of the things that – I think James Comey actually did in fact communicate to us. He just didn’t do it on camera, in a public statement, with his name attached. But the leaks that came out obviously suggesting that he had asked the Justice Department to do this.
MS. BRENNAN: One of those unnamed sources.
MR. BAKER: Unnamed sources made pretty clear what his position is, and obviously people familiar with his position wanted that out there. You know, it’s an extraordinary situation where you have one president accusing another president of something like this. Now, there are obviously wiretaps. There’s a lot of confusion about this. When they ask the White House what’s their proof, one of the things they do is they point to articles written by some of our newspapers. But they’re confusing what the articles have actually said. Some of his people, some of the people in Mr. Trump’s circle, have been caught on tape talking to Russia – or there have been intercepted communications involving Russians talking about with people around Trump.
Now, we – the United States taps Russian phone calls all the time. There’s no evidence public at this point that there were wiretaps specifically on Mr. Trump’s – on the president’s phone, or on necessarily even the people who are around him. We don’t know that yet. That’s still to be determined. But we there is an easy way to find out. It’s a five-minute investigation. Doesn’t have to have the Congress involved. It’s a five-minute investigation. The president of the United States picks up the phone, he calls his FBI director. He calls his attorney general. He calls his director of national intelligence. Is there a FISA warrant? Is there a warrant on this? Yes or no.
MR. COSTA: But, Yamiche, the president didn’t do that. And a lot of people around the country, his supporters, they follow Breitbart, which had these articles about a so-called silent coup against President Trump. And this is the information the president is digesting.
MS. ALCINDOR: I think you said this idea that he put his aides in an uncomfortable position. I would say that he had them doing backflips all week – (laughter) – mainly because this is something that I think goes to the heart of President Trump. It got him elected. He kind of in some ways is someone who says bombastic things, who makes – who kind of in some ways traffics conspiracy theories, and people kind of get all on the same boat and say, you know, that’s true. That’s probably something. And we’re living in this age where everything that’s reported is questioned.
But on this issue, I think he’s getting to the point where people are saying, wait, like, why would you be saying this? And are we still talking about President Obama? Because at this point if you’re going to be a president and you’re going to lead and you have all these things that you can be pointing to – you think about immigration, health care, tax reform – all these other things you could be doing, the fact that you’re talking about President Obama possibly wiretapping you without any evidence I think starts to get even his own party wondering what is going on here, and who did we back?
MR. COSTA: Speaking of the intelligence community, the CIA is investigating its own operations after WikiLeaks released thousands of documents – thousands of them – about the agency’s electronic spying techniques. WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange called the CIA’s failure to secure top-secret information devastating incompetence. What about the timing of this, Peter? It was made by Julian Assange, these revelations, who has been linked to Russian officials, even though he denies that link.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, in some ways almost as interesting as the substance of what was released is the timing, is the fact that it came out now. We’re talking about wiretapping and the whole Russia investigation. What is going on here? Somebody somewhere has a plan, and we just don’t quite understand it. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean it had anything to do with Russia. It’s very possible it’s a CIA disgruntled contractor or a whistleblower. To use a phrase much like Edward Snowden with the NSA, we don’t really know the answer to that. But it does raise these questions again. What’s going on here, who’s – you know, and what is the purpose of it? Who is trying to accomplish what? And I don’t know the answer to that.
MR. COSTA: There are a lot of unanswered questions. And other question that’s somewhat related to WikiLeaks in the sense that it’s the Trump administration is former National Security Advisor Flynn. He had – he’s revealed now that he’s registered as a foreign agent, he had been paid by a Turkish-linked organization as a lobbyist of sorts. And so you have WikiLeaks, you have all these questions about Flynn, it raises some big-picture questions, Margaret, about the Trump administration, about all this chaos that’s around it in terms of the intelligence community.
MS. BRENNAN: Well, certainly with the case of Michael Flynn, it raises a lot of questions. If he is part of this broader probe on Russian contacts with U.S. officials, to have this filing legally declaring himself to be a foreign agent having worked on behalf of the Turkish government, which – foreign agent sounds really scary. He basically, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, lobbied for the Turkish government. But the point is that it wasn’t disclosed when he was sitting in the White House as the national security advisor to the president of the United States, for a government that the U.S. has had some troubled relations with, even though they are part of NATO. So it’s a really unusual position. And I thought the White House, again, more backflips: Sean Spicer, the spokesperson, from the podium partially defending Michael Flynn, which I think was really about defending the vetting, or lack thereof, and the legal issues that the transition team and Michael Flynn’s personal lawyers perhaps should have reconsidered at the time, not having filed this before he entered the White House. But then you had the vice president of the United States on television making clear that he found this deeply troubling. I think he called it disturbing, and he said that this affirms the decision to have him resign, which the White House basically says was a firing of Flynn. So that is also a big disconnect between what has been represented in regard to the vice president as a violation of trust and misleading him, and then by the White House as, oh, it’s a personal business matter. And it raises even more questions about who’s working in the White House and what the vetting was.
MR. COSTA: Well, thanks, everybody. (Laughter.) We could go on all night. (Laughter.)
Our conversation continues online with the Washington Week Extra. We’ll talk about the latest legal challenges to the Trump administration’s travel ban, plus why the president tapped a former rival to be the next ambassador to Russia. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek later tonight and all weekend long.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.