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Analysis: Trump leaves Washington reeling with policy whiplash as he struggles with domestic agenda

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/3/2019 Seung Min Kim, Erica Werner
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President Trump has left his advisers and GOP lawmakers reeling from policy whiplash in recent days, cycling through new ideas on health care and immigration that underscore his continuing struggle to pursue a coherent domestic agenda in a divided Washington.

Trump surprised Republicans last week with a new pledge to replace the Affordable Care Act, only to backtrack Tuesday after being confronted with the realities of another all-consuming fight over President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law on Capitol Hill.

Trump has also sent aides and a large part of the federal bureaucracy scrambling to respond to his expansive vow to close the entire U.S.-Mexico border this week unless “ALL illegal immigration” is halted by Mexico. Alarmed lawmakers and business leaders warned that any such move would be catastrophic for the U.S. economy, and administration officials signaled Tuesday that they were seeking more-limited options to address a surge in migration at the border.

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Even efforts on which the White House has worked closely with congressional GOP leaders have seen setbacks, such as a massive disaster funding bill that stalled Monday amid partisan sniping over aid to Puerto Rico. Trump has inflamed the fight by repeatedly denigrating the island’s leadership and implying that Puerto Rico — a U.S. territory — is separate from the United States.

The battles illustrate the difficulties Trump and Republicans have had in adjusting to Democratic control of the House after two years of uncontested GOP power in Congress and the White House. But many Republicans say they have adapted to the pandemonium — learning to privately sway Trump by warning him of the consequences of his policy declarations, many of which are launched in late-night or early-morning tweets.

GOP lawmakers, for instance, think they have successfully headed off any major health-care effort, which they fear would open them up to damaging Democratic attacks. Even so, a legal challenge targeting the Obama-era health law, and backed by the Trump administration, virtually ensures that the issue will remain at the forefront of the president’s reelection campaign.

“Obviously this is a president who tends sometimes to move on his own and then obviously has some of those conversations later,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Tuesday of Trump’s recent push on health care and the border. “That’s the dynamic that everybody up here deals with.”

Trump had several such conversations on replacing the health law, commonly known as Obamacare, amid days of upbeat proclamations that the GOP would become the “Party of Healthcare.” By late Monday night — and in subsequent comments in the Oval Office on Tuesday — Trump bowed to the political pressure by announcing he would rather vote on health care after the 2020 elections.

“If we get back the House, and on the assumption we keep the Senate and we keep the presidency — which I hope are two good assumptions — we’re going to have phenomenal health care,” Trump said as he sat next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office.

He promised that Republicans will unveil their Obamacare replacement plan “at the appropriate time” and blamed Democrats for turning health care into a political issue.

Despite the punt, officials at the White House continued meetings to discuss a potential health-care plan, led by Domestic Policy Council chief Joe Grogan, and circulated principles earlier Tuesday, according to a senior aide.

But congressional Republicans made it clear they would direct their attention elsewhere. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), whom Trump tapped last week as one of his point men on health care in the Senate, instead rolled out legislation Tuesday to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

When asked about Trump’s idea to hold a vote on a health-care plan after the election, Scott responded: “I think you’d have to ask the president. I know what I’m going to focus on. I’m going to focus on drug prices.”

One gen­esis of Trump’s public retreat was private nudging from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who along with most Senate Republicans was displeased by the unexpected health-care push.

Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump are posing for a picture: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) helped dissuade President Trump from pursuing a new health-care fight, according to an official familiar with their conversations. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) helped dissuade President Trump from pursuing a new health-care fight, according to an official familiar with their conversations. In at least two phone calls in recent days, McConnell pressed Trump to listen to those around him — his advisers, senators and political strategists — who were urging the president to reverse course on health care, according to an official familiar with the conversation. McConnell questioned why Republicans would want an intraparty fight over health care at a time when Democrats are divided on their own proposals, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private calls.

During a conversation Monday, the majority leader made the case that while the GOP-led Senate could pass a health-care bill endorsed by Trump, the president would not be able to support the product that would emerge from the House once Democrats got their hands on it, the official said.

McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he had a “good conversation” with Trump and that he and the president were now on the same page.

“I made it clear to him we were not going to be doing that in the Senate,” McConnell said of health care, stressing the challenges of writing legislation that could pass muster with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “We don’t have a misunderstanding about that.”

Even as Trump tries to steer the party’s policy agenda, GOP lawmakers have attempted to emphasize goals that broadly unify Republicans and either split Democrats or put them on the defensive.

This year, McConnell has held votes on the Green New Deal environmental plan — a vote Democrats derided as a political stunt — and a wide-ranging Middle East policy bill that divided Senate Democrats. This week, Senate Republicans plan to alter Senate rules so that dozens of Trump nominees in the administration and throughout the judiciary who have been stalled for months can be confirmed more quickly.

“Given that the president’s proposals range from the imprudent to the impractical, at best, congressional Republicans seem largely to be ignoring them in favor of their own priorities: nominations in the Senate, and highlighting Democratic radicalism and disunity in the House,” said Michael Steel, who worked under former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Many in the GOP sympathize with Trump and his frustrations — and with his tendency to act on his own on immigration or to push Republicans on something they don’t want to do, like health care.

“Listen, before the 2018 election, certainly in Wisconsin, I was saying, ‘Don’t elect Democrats to the House; if the Democrats take over the House all we’re going to be talking about is investigation, talk of impeachment, it won’t be about legislation, it won’t be about solving these problems,’ ” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “I hate to say I was right.”

Still, some Republican senators have grown accustomed to not taking Trump’s threats seriously.

One such threat was Trump’s vow to seal the border this week, which he reiterated in the Oval Office on Tuesday despite having been warned of the potential economic consequences by his top advisers. Senior White House officials are now examining how to exempt commercial trade from whatever border crackdown Trump might decide to pursue in coming days.

Even as he insisted that Mexico must do more to stem the numbers of migrants arriving on the southern U.S. border, Trump softened the threat slightly, saying Tuesday that he would close “large sections of the border, maybe not all of it.”

“It’s the only way we’re getting a response, and I’m ready to do it,” Trump said. “And I will say this: Many people want me to do it.”

On Capitol Hill, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) brushed off Trump’s remarks: “Until he closes the border, I don’t believe it.”

Trump’s comments so alarmed some Republicans that they began dialing the White House to wave the president off his latest threat. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said he had a call in to the White House and was hoping to speak with Trump later Tuesday to detail his concerns about the potential “unintended consequences” of shutting down the border.

“I understand the president’s frustration, I share it,” said Cornyn, a former party leader. “But I think there are more targeted ways to address it than just a blunt instrument like that.”

Josh Dawsey and Damian Paletta contributed to this report. 

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