Trump's art of no deal: Find someone to blame

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Story highlights

  • Republicans pulled Friday's expected vote
  • That's despite White House attempts to woo votes

Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump likes winning. But on Friday he failed.

Lacking sufficient support, Republicans were forced to pull their bill to replace Obamacare from the floor of the GOP-controlled House. Speaking soon after accepting defeat, Trump didn't shoulder the responsibility himself, nor did he pin the blame on House GOP leadership or any of the warring Republican factions' whose competing demands ultimately sunk any chance of a consensus bill.
Instead, he blamed Democrats and vowed to let Obamacare "explode."
"We had no Democrat support. We had no votes from the Democrats. They weren't going to give us a single vote, so it's a very very difficult thing to do," Trump said. "I think the losers are (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi and (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer because now they own Obamacare. 100% own it."
The words flew in the face of Trump's intense and personal engagement in lobbying members of Congress to support the House bill, efforts the White House touted in recent days as they hinted at Trump's negotiating expertise.
That tune changed on Friday after Trump's first legislative failure, when Trump dubbed himself a mere "team player."
But while Trump publicly declined to level any criticism against House Speaker Paul Ryan -- who Trump said "really worked hard" -- or the House Freedom Caucus, which withheld support even after Trump made major changes to the bill in their favor, he and his advisers had begun the finger-pointing a day earlier.
Standing on the precipice of a legislative failure likely to damage the political capital he will need to steer the priorities he truly cares about through Congress, Trump was "pissed" Thursday night, one source close to the President said, and so were his advisers. Blame fell everywhere but in the Oval Office.
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Several senior administration officials on Thursday night began blaming a flawed strategy pushed by Ryan and former House member Tom Price, now Health and Human Services secretary, for the embarrassing debacle. It was a strategy Trump signed up for when top aides and Ryan presented him with the plan to make good on his Obamacare repeal campaign promise so he could swiftly move on to issues he is more passionate about and familiar with like tax reform and infrastructure spending.
"This was all Ryan and Price," said one senior administration official. "They agreed upon this plan the day (Trump) hired Price."
Nevertheless, Trump himself answered affirmatively when asked Friday morning if Ryan should stay on as speaker in the face of failure.
A second senior administration official concurred while a third instead pinned the blame on the House Freedom Caucus, the group of hardline conservatives who have held out support for the bill, demanding a slew of 11th-hour changes that sent the House GOP jigsaw puzzle into disarray.
"There is a growing frustration in the White House over how the Freedom Caucus has handled the negotiations. The President has tried to address their concerns and they keep moving the goal posts," said a senior White House official. "If this bill goes down, I don't think the President is going to have any appetite to work with them."
But a source close to Trump described the President as more frustrated with his staff for convincing him to back the House GOP leadership plan in the first place.
Painting the President as a political neophyte who has only been in Washington for two months, the source said Trump has become "frustrated with his staff's inability to get this done" and argued that Trump was misled by those staffers who urged him to tackle Obamacare head first and hitch himself to Ryan's plan.
"He was talked into doing this bill first. It was not negotiated well on his behalf," the source said. "He's relied on his staff to give him good information and they haven't. And that's the problem."
The source close to Trump described a president who felt bamboozled by Ryan and his own staff, duped into thinking that passing health care would be the quick victory he needed to make good on a campaign promise central to his election and push forward on other policy fronts.
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Trump is likely to blame Ryan and his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, the source said, since he "bought" into Ryan's plan and helped convince Trump to get on board, according to another senior administration official.
Trump also blames staff for his own late personal engagement in lobbying members of Congress and the lack of presidential travel to key districts that would help flip votes rather than himself, one source said.
But there is plenty of blame to go around, as all factions within the West Wing worked arduously to help craft and sell the bill.
As Trump headed to Mar-a-Lago the first Friday of this month, both Priebus and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon stayed at the White House, working late into the night on tweaks to the bill, according to one senior administration official.
The White House deployed its top conservatives to corral the House Freedom Caucus, with Bannon, counselor Kellyanne Conway and senior White House policy adviser Steven Miller joining Vice President Mike Pence's already longstanding engagement in the legislative push.
And weeks after Trump pledged the full weight of his presidency and White House officials touted Trump's personal engagement in selling the bill, the President appears prepared to accept none of the blame if his gambit fails.
In two rallies in the last two weeks, he barely talked about health care and failed to build a consensus among disparate Republican factions.
Talked up as a "closer," the President who ascended to the presidency on the merits of his negotiating prowess only became intimately involved in the work of wooing and grappling with members of Congress to win their support in the last 10 days.
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By that point, Republican senators were becoming increasingly vocal in their objections to the bill while the House Freedom Caucus ramped up its calls for major changes that would unsettle the bill's delicate balance aimed at appealing to all factions of the GOP.
Now, some Republicans have begun to direct at least some of the blame toward the Oval Office, arguing that Trump failed to follow through on his pledge to put sustained pressure on Republican members of Congress in order to pass the bill.
For that, senior administration officials pinned the blame on the House speaker, who, along with his leadership team, crafted the bulk of the House bill months before Trump even took office.
But as one senior administration official argued to CNN that hardline conservative members needed to pass the bill were not brought into the process until too late, Ryan's office quickly responded with prepared pushback.
"The speaker and his staff have met with conservative members of our conference nearly every week as the bill has made its way through the four-committee process," a Ryan aide said in a statement. "The speaker maintains an open door policy for members in his office ... He regularly texts with members, including (Rep. Mark) Meadows. The speaker's senior staff are always available, including our chief of staff."
Still, more blame is likely to fall. One source wondered late Thursday night why Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and one of the most powerful West Wing forces, was away on a ski vacation with his wife, Ivanka Trump, while other White House staffers toiled away at an increasingly fraught mission.
Trump, though, appeared to press for victory even Friday morning, making calls to House members despite the pre-emptive finger pointing from the White House.
The President is "determined" to pass the bill, a senior administration official said.
He also took to Twitter, making his final appeal to Republicans.
"After seven horrible years of ObamaCare (skyrocketing premiums & deductibles, bad healthcare), this is finally your chance for a great plan!" he tweeted.
Hoping to pressure conservatives, he added: "The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!"