“Hello, Bob”: When President Trump called my cellphone to say that the health-care bill was dead
By Robert Costa
President Trump called me on my cellphone on Friday afternoon at 3:31 p.m. At first I thought it was a reader with a complaint since it was a blocked number.
Instead, it was the president calling from the Oval Office. His voice was even, his tone muted. He did not bury the lede.
“Hello, Bob,” Trump began. “So, we just pulled it.”
Trump was speaking, of course, of the Republican plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, which had been languishing for days amid unrest throughout the party as the president and his allies have courted members and pushed for a vote.
Before I could ask a question, Trump plunged into his explanation of the politics of his decision to call off a vote on the bill he had been touting.
The Democrats, he said, were to blame.
“We couldn’t get one Democratic vote and we were a little bit shy, very little, but it was still a little bit shy, so we pulled it,” Trump said.
Trump said he would not put the bill on the floor in the coming weeks. Instead, he is willing to wait and watch the current law continue and, in his view, encounter problems. And he believes Democrats will eventually want to work with him on some kind of legislative fix to Obamacare, although he did not say when that would be.
“As you know, I’ve been saying for years that the best thing is to let Obamacare explode and then go make a deal with the Democrats and have one unified deal. And they will come to us, we won’t have to come to them,” he said. “After Obamacare explodes.”
“The beauty,” Trump continued, “is that they own Obamacare. So when it explodes they come to us and we make one beautiful deal for the people.”
My question for the president: Are you really willing to wait to re-engage on health care until the Democrats come and ask for your help?
“Sure,” Trump said. “I never said I was going to repeal and replace in the first 61 days” — contradicting his own statements and that of his own adviser, Kellyanne Conway, who told CNN in November that the then-president-elect was contemplating convening a special session on Inauguration Day to begin the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Turning to an aide, Trump asked,
“How many days is it now? Whatever.” He laughed.
Trump returned to the theme of blaming the Democrats.
“Hey, we could have done this,” he said. “But we couldn’t get one Democrat vote, not one. So that means they own Obamacare and when that explodes, they will come to us wanting to save whatever is left and we’ll make a real deal.”
Still, I wondered, why not whip some more votes this weekend and come back next week to the House with a revised piece of legislation?
“Well,” Trump said, “we could do that, too. But we didn’t do that. It’s always possible but we pulled it.”
Trump brought up the vote count. “We were close,” he said.
“I would say within anywhere from five to 12 votes,” Trump said — contradicting widespread reports that at least three dozen Republicans were opposed to the measure.
I said that must have hurt after all of his efforts. He made calls, had people over to the White House, invited House members on Air Force One. He may not have loved the bill but he embraced the push for passage.
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m a team player but I’ve also said the best thing politically is to let Obamacare explode.”
Trump said he made the decision to pull the bill after meeting Friday at the White House with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
Was that a tense, tough conversation with Ryan, I asked?
“No, not tough,” Trump said. “It’s just life. We had great support among most Republicans but no Democratic votes, zero, not one.”
I mentioned to Trump that some of his allies were frustrated with Ryan. Did he share those frustrations, and would he be able to work with Ryan moving forward on plans to cut taxes and build an infrastructure package?
“I don’t blame Paul,” Trump said.
He then repeated the phrase: “I don’t blame Paul. He worked very hard on this.”
“I don’t blame Paul at all.”
As he waits for Democrats, I asked, what’s next on health care, if anything, policy-wise?
“Time will tell. Obamacare is in for some rough days. You understand that. It’s in for some rough, rough days,” Trump said.
He added, “I’ll fix it as it explodes. They’re going to come to ask for help. They’re going to have to. Here’s the good news: Health care is now totally the property of the Democrats.”
This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.
Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @costareports.