By Robert Costa
President Donald Trump called me on my cellphone 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 lead.
“Hello, Bob,” Trump began. “So, we just pulled it.”
Trump was speaking, of course, of the Republican effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, a plan that had been languishing for days amid unrest throughout the party as the president and his allies courted members and pushed for a vote.
Before I could ask a question, Trump plunged into his explanation of the politics of deciding to call off a vote on a 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. He is willing to wait and watch the current law continue and, in his view, encounter problems. And he believes that Democrats eventually will want to work with him on some kind of legislative fix to Obamacare, although he did not say when that will 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 reengage 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 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.”
There is little evidence that either Trump or House Republicans made a serious effort to reach out to Democrats.
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 – although widespread reports indicated that at least three dozen Republicans opposed the measure.
That must have hurt after all of his attempts to rally Republicans, I said. 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 negotiations.
“You’re right,” Trump 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.
“I’ll fix it as it explodes,” he said. “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.”
Speaking of premium increases, Trump said, “When people get a 200 percent increase next year or a 100 percent or 70 percent, that’s their fault.”
He returned again to a partisan line on the turn of events.
“To be honest, the biggest losers today are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Trump said of the House minority leader and the Senate minority leader. “Because now they own the disaster known as Obamacare.”
Okay, I asked, they may own it, in his view, but he will at some point be tasked with shaping whatever comes forward as a partial replacement. What will that be? What kind of policy could he support?
“Oh, lots of things can happen,” Trump said. “But the best would be if we could all get together and do a real health-care bill that would be good for the people, and that could very well happen.”
Does Trump regret starting his agenda this year with health care?
“No, I don’t,” he said. “But in a way, I’m glad I got it out of the way.”
“Look, I’m a team player,” Trump said of the Republican Party. “I’ve played this team. I’ve played with the team. And they just fell a little bit short, and it’s very hard when you need almost 100 percent of the votes and we have no votes, zero, from the Democrats. It’s unheard of.”
What happened with the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-line conservatives he had wooed over and over again?
“Ah, that’s the big question,” Trump said with a slight chuckle. “Don’t know. I have a good relationship with them, but I couldn’t get them. They just wouldn’t do it.”
Trump alluded to long-running, simmering dramas on Capitol Hill, which he said had little to do with him, as a reason the Freedom Caucus could not back the bill.
“Years of hatred and distrust,” he said. “Long before me.”
Was Trump saying, perhaps, that the inability of Ryan and his team to work well with that caucus was part of why talks stalled?
“Well, look, you can say what you want,” Trump said. “But there are years of problems, great hatred and distrust, and, you know, I came into the middle of it.”
“I think they made a mistake, but that’s okay,” Trump said of the Freedom Caucus.
As we wrapped up, I tried to get some clarity. The president was blaming the Democrats and was willing to let the law “explode.” Yet he also seemed to be teasing the possibility of doing something bipartisan down the road, a fresh start at some point.
I asked, would working on a bipartisan health-care deal a year from now be something he would find more agreeable than whipping the hard right?
“A lot of people might say that,” Trump said, laughing. “We’ll end up with a better health-care plan, a great plan. And you wouldn’t need the Freedom Caucus.”
What about the moderates, the entity known as the Tuesday Group?
“They were great,” Trump said. “They were really great.”
He turned once more to the Democrats.
“They own it,” he said.
“You’ve said that,” I told him.
“This is a process,” Trump concluded, “and it’s going to work out very well. I was a team player, and I had an obligation to go along with this.”
As Trump tried to hang up the phone and get back to work, I asked him to reflect, if at all possible, on lessons learned. He’s a few months into his presidency, and he had to pull a bill that he had invested time and energy into passing.
What was on his mind?
“Just another day,” Trump said flatly. “Just another day in paradise, okay?”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Robert Costa