It was a last ditch effort by President Trump to pull support from conservative Republicans for the final repeal of the healthcare that Democrats had put into place seven years before. We have no recordings. We have no transcript. We do have what Republicans themselves are saying.
Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act … when Trump decided to cut them off.
“Forget about the little s**t,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”
The word, as quoted was not “stuff”.
A participant of the meeting explains to a reporter that the President
did not have the greatest grasp of health care policy or legislative procedure.
Another conservative is quoted by Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker magazine that it is…
…astonishing how in over his head trump is. He seems to neither get the politics nor the policy of this.
It is a clear enough summary of a Presidential approach. The “small” stuff, that was not called “stuff”, was what would affect the health of millions of American families. The “big picture” was politics.
The meeting brought to mind another confrontation that made the news. That encounter had to do with Obamacare as well. We know more of that meeting. We have transcripts. We have a video record.
House Republicans had scheduled a retreat in Baltimore a few weeks into 2010. Barack Obama had been President for just a year. Republican leaders had a great idea. They decided to invite the new President. Their top policy experts would join together, subjecting the chief executive to a grilling that would make political history.
President Obama’s one year of Presidential experience would be no match against all of the accumulated expertise of veteran house members. They would make him look foolish.
Then the President surprised them with a monumental blunder. His staff actually asked if the event might be televised. Republicans were gleeful. President Obama would not only be humiliated it would be broadcast to a national audience.
On January 29, 2010, President Obama was warmly greeted by the Baltimore gathering. Then the questions began.
The President was attacked for a lack of transparency on healthcare by Jason Chaffetz of Utah:
When you stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-SPAN, you didn’t. I was disappointed, and I think a lot of Americans were disappointed.
The President responded mildly, correcting the assertion.
Overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings in which you guys were participating.
The President suggested the Congressman look to the record.
I kicked it off, by the way, with a meeting with many of you, including your key leadership.
The President was sure and confident. Republicans had not expected this.
A new member of Congress challenged the President, accusing him of tolerating wasteful congressional earmarks that would benefit only special interests within key congressional districts. The President smiled at the question.
Some in the audience had to have squirmed as he addressed earmarks specifically designed by Republicans to benefit Republicans. The President acknowledged that some earmarks might have been defensible, but that they all shared an important defect:
They haven’t gone through the regular appropriations process in the full light of day. So one place to start is to make sure that they are at least transparent, that everybody knows what’s there before we move forward.
Then President Obama issued his own challenge to the new member.
The challenge I guess I would have for you as a freshman, is what are you doing inside your caucus to make sure that I’m not the only guy who’s responsible for this stuff, so that we’re working together?
A questioner demanded to know when the President would ever begin to listen to Republican ideas on conservative goals.
When will we look forward to starting anew and sitting down with you to put all of these ideas on the table, to look at these lessons learned, to benefit from that experience, and to produce a product that is going to reduce government interference, reduce cost, and be fair to the American taxpayer?
The President waited for the applause to settle, then corrected the premise.
Actually, I’ve gotten many of your ideas. I’ve taken a look at them, even before I was handed this. Some of the ideas we have embraced in our package. Some of them are embraced with caveats. So let me give you an example.
He then mentioned several specific Republican proposals, detailing a brief analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each. It became clear to the audience that he had prepared. This was not going as they had planned.
The challenges went on. Questions ranged from softball to aggressive and harsh.
Jeb Hensarling, of Texas, demanded to know why the President wanted to triple the national debt. President Obama calmly corrected him.
I’ll go through it with you line by line. The fact of the matter is, is that when we came into office, the deficit was 1.3 trillion dollars – 1.3 – So when you say that suddenly I’ve got a monthly deficit that’s higher than the annual deficit left by the Republicans, that’s factually just not true, and you know it’s not true.
When questions became especially hostile, President Obama turned accusations around and gently used them to make his own point about Republican obstruction.
Jeb, with all due respect, I’ve just got to take this last question as an example of how it’s very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we’re going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.
And he did not shrink from challenging some assertions.
I am happy to have any independent fact-checker out there take a look at your presentation versus mine in terms of the accuracy of what I just said.
In the end, the gleeful Republican joy at the prospect of embarrassing President Obama had become a shambles. The disappointment turned into a simmering fury. Angry Republicans told reporters that the White House had ambushed the Republican gathering. The suggestion for television cameras had been a trap contrived to make them look silly in front of a national audience.
The President had violated Republican expectations. He had not been humiliated. He had humiliated them.
President Obama’s mastery of Republican proposals, his ability to put policy into understandable language, his gentle responses to conservative aggressiveness made the news. It survives now, every nuance preserved on video. He had faced a hostile audience, he had done it in public, and he had surrounded angry arguments and gently destroyed them.
That event provides a remarkable contrast to President Trump’s private meeting with a friendly group of conservatives. We have no transcript. We have no visual record. We do have the accounts of Republicans themselves.
heard enough about policy and process.
no grasp of health care policy or legislative procedure.
astonishing how in over his head trump is. He seems to neither get the politics nor the policy.
One President stressed policy. The other told conservatives to ignore policy.
One spoke of the health of ordinary Americans. The other did not think the effect on real lives was worth considering.
One seemed to know more about conservative proposals than did the conservatives making those proposals. The other did not know, did not want to know, those little details.
Americans are learning to deal with a new President, a President with a limited attention span, with limited patience for other lives, with an obsession for how things look politically.
Americans are learning again each day how fondly they remember the last occupant of White House.
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