The American Health Care Act debacle was President Donald Trump’s initiation into how the sausage is made in Washington and odds are that he is not a fan.
Since the bill was pulled on Friday, Trump and his allies have lashed out at any and every person outside of the White House, including the Freedom Caucus and House Speaker Paul Ryan. They are the ones he blames for the AHCA’s failure, as, in his view, his administration performed exactly as it should (it didn’t). Were the president to be honest with himself, he would recognize and comprehend that he too is at fault for the failure of this dumpster fire of a bill.
Trump’s actions and words reveal a man who does not seem to comprehend the role and function of Congress. This attitude is dangerous, not only for his presidency, but for the country as a whole because it makes it that much harder to pass key legislation and work together to raise the debt limit, as well as avoid a government shutdown – something that could happen next month, as the federal government will run out of money on April 28.
When one examines the evidence, it is rather clear that the president believes that Congress is a subservient body. Trump does not recognize that the legislative branch is a separate, but co-equal branch of American government. By design, they march to the beat of their own drum, but are always willing to work with a president on legislation.
Congress itself is watching Trump’s attitude toward them and silently taking stock. They understand what his actions, even if unintentional, toward them signal and are waiting to react. Now, in the wake of the AHCA failure, the public is seeing how Trump offers slights to Congress. However, members of the House and Senate have been seeing the president’s casual regard toward them play out since he took office just over two months ago.
On February 9, in a White House meeting with aviation executives, Trump proudly declared that his comprehensive tax reform plan was ahead of schedule and would be released in two to three weeks. What should have been cause for celebration among congressional Republicans only produced confusion and befuddlement.
Ordinarily, a president works hand-in-glove with Congress to craft legislation, but this simply had not happened. Cable news made brief mention of the president’s comments and noted how anonymous GOP members of Congress- commonly heavily involved in crafting such a plan – were perplexed and wondered why they were not consulted, made aware of the White House’s plan or if this were just another off the cuff remark by a president who has a casual relationship with facts. Since then, the plan has not been released, nor has any hint of one been uttered again.
Fifteen days later, on February 24, Trump met with his former rival Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Oval Office. No agenda had been set, as it was meant to be a bury the hatchet-style meeting where the two could sow the seeds for working together in the future. The Washington Post reported that this meeting turned to the issue of Obamacare and how to best repeal and replace it with minimal negative impact on Americans.
According to the Post’s account of the meeting, the president was keenly interested and even excited by what Kasich was suggesting. He called senior aides into the Oval Office and even had Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on speakerphone. Then, Jared Kushner politely tried to walk Trump back by telling him Speaker Ryan had a plan of his own (what turned out to be the debacle of the AHCA) that he was drafting. “Well, I like this better,” Trump shot back.
This might seem like much ado about nothing, but it was yet another signal, be it intentional or not, to Congress about their perceived value. Trump could and should have brought Paul Ryan into the conversation with Gov. Kasich. He did not and it sent an unmistakable message to members of Congress: they and their work are readily cast aside at a moment’s notice. Their value to the president is minimal.
At the same time, some members of Congress have acted in a manner that could help cement the idea that they serve the president. Last week, Rep. Devin Nunes informed Trump that his wiretapping accusation might not be as baseless as many have claimed. This is a highly unusual move, as presidents rely on the national security apparatus and not members of Congress to provide such information. Through his actions, Nunes effectively told Trump that he and, by extension, other representatives report to him.
In the wake of the AHCA’s failure on Friday, the president did himself no favors by indicting Speaker Ryan and Congress. By blaming them and absolving himself from guilt, he only increased the likelihood that congressional Republicans will be wary to genuinely work with him and, in doing so, made it even easier for the great paralysis that grips Washington (which Trump campaigned against) to be sustained.
While Americans are not necessarily concerned with the aforementioned instances of Trump hurting himself with Congress and, by extension, future legislation, they should be. His actions are actually a separate form of communication that most are oblivious toward. If Trump wants to get serious about Congress passing his legislative agenda or prevent them from impeding his actions as president, he must learn this language quickly.
Evan Siegfried is a Republican strategist and commentator. His new book, “GOP GPS: How to Find the Millennials and Urban Voters the Republican Party Needs to Survive,” is available for purchase.