After Touting Negotiating Skills, Trump Struggles To Make A Deal On Health Care
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Trump is at the G-20 meeting in Europe, where he could face some tough negotiations over world affairs. The trip is a break from grueling talks that are happening here at home about health care. The Republicans' effort to replace the Affordable Care Act has stalled in the Senate. Trump has boasted about his skills as a negotiator, but so far, he hasn't been able to move this piece of legislation. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Donald Trump promised to bring the art of the deal to Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: With Congress, you have to get everybody in a room and you have to get them to agree.
I'm really a great negotiator. I know how to negotiate.
I like making deals, preferably big deals.
LIASSON: But deals, especially on legislation, have been hard to come by. On health care, Trump has careened from one position to another. He promised health care for everyone with no Medicaid cuts, but now he's supporting a plan that does neither. But all of that, says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is just part of Trump's negotiating style.
NEWT GINGRICH: A fair amount of what Trump does is posturing. He knows it's posturing. His base audience knows it's posturing. And he's a little sloppy about it and always has been. I think it's been part of who he's been probably for his whole life. And it's like the friends who say to me, oh, can you get him to stop tweeting? And my answer is no.
LIASSON: Gingrich, who's been Trump's interpreter and defender, argues that Trump's early negotiations as president, sloppy as they may have been, show he can be successful.
GINGRICH: He is going to renegotiate NAFTA. So having threatened termination, he's now made the moderate position negotiation, whereas if he started at negotiation you might have had the Mexicans saying, no, we don't want to do that. Well, now they're grateful we're negotiating. He actually has moved NATO - NATO - the secretary general of NATO said they've had $10 billion in increased commitments since he became president.
LIASSON: In the same way, Gingrich would argue, Trump helped heave the House version of the health care bill over the finish line. He sent conflicting signals, first lashing out at the conservative Freedom Caucus, then giving them what they wanted. But in the end, says former Republican strategist Dan Schnur, the widespread view was that Trump was able to get a deal because he didn't really care what was in it.
DAN SCHNUR: Trump fancies himself as a master dealmaker and master negotiator. And so in the long run, it probably doesn't matter that much who he makes the deal with as long as he can make a deal and then stand up the day afterwards and say, look what a great deal I made.
LIASSON: So maybe Trump isn't a master negotiator or even a great closer. He's a salesman and a cheerleader, happy to declare a big victory in a Rose Garden ceremony after the health care bill passed its very first hurdle in the House.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: So what we have is something very, very incredibly well-crafted.
LIASSON: But the problem was when the president said that the health care bill wasn't even halfway through the negotiations, and a few weeks later, he was calling the House bill mean. After the Senate version ran into trouble he suggested changing the strategy altogether to a simple repeal of Obamacare, something he'd explicitly rejected months earlier. Confusion as a negotiating strategy might work in certain real estate deals, but it tends to undermine a president's allies in Congress, says Frances Lee, professor of political science at the University of Maryland.
FRANCES LEE: It's a very difficult position for them to be in. It's not clear what he wants in terms of the substance of the legislation. He wants to get rid of Obamacare, but it's not clear what he wants in the bill.
LIASSON: Would you say he's helping, hurting or irrelevant at this point?
LEE: I think he's on balance hurting as far as leading Congress goes. I think he's probably irrelevant in terms of leading public opinion.
LIASSON: Trump is not only confusing Republicans in Congress. He's damaging the trust he'll need from his own team on issues beyond health care. Republicans have been furious at Trump's decision to throw the House bill under the bus, to threaten to attack fellow Republican senators who weren't on board. And then there are the traditional presidential negotiating tools that Trump has decided not to use. Newt Gingrich.
GINGRICH: He's about to learn that that's a total misunderstanding of the Congress. You can't negotiate with the Congress the way you would in the business community because the various and sundry things which drive members of Congress are different than the things that would drive people you're trying to have a business negotiation with. And you - if you really want to dominate the Congress, you have to arouse the country.
LIASSON: But Trump hasn't given a single public speech explaining what his health care plan would do and why it would be better. He hasn't given an in-depth interview on health care even to a friendly reporter. He has made lots of phone calls to senators and invited them to meetings at the White House. But overall, says Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution, the president has taken a much lower profile in the Senate negotiations, leaving the heavy lifting to Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
SARAH BINDER: And I think what we're seeing is he gets squeezed out of the deal, right? It's all being done on the Hill. He's not really being engaged in leading the way forward.
LIASSON: So Trump has to hope Mitch McConnell comes through with something he can call a win. As he wrote in "The Art Of The Deal," quote, "you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on." Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.