Donald Trump is a remarkably unorthodox politician.
Witness a scene Wednesday at the White House where Trump hosted the entire Republican Senate conference as a way of jawboning them about the health care bill, which appears to be hopelessly stalled.
At the start of the meeting, Trump gave some on-camera remarks in which he talked about the struggles to find consensus on the legislation. Then he said this about Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who was sitting directly to Trump’s right:
“This was the one we were worried about. You weren’t there. But you’re gonna be. You’re gonna be. Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he? And I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they’re gonna appreciate what you hopefully will do. Any senator who votes against starting debate is really telling America that you’re fine with Obamacare. But being fine with Obamacare isn’t enough for another reason. Because it’s gone. It’s failed. It’s not gonna be around.”
Heller’s reaction to Trump’s comments is, literally, priceless:
Make no mistake about what Trump is doing in that moment. He’s “joking” but, as everyone knows, he’s not. He’s delivering a threat to Heller.
Heller, who represents a swing state in Nevada and faces a serious Democratic challenger in the form of freshman Rep. Jacky Rosen, has been at the center of the political firestorm this debate has kicked up within the GOP.
He announced on June 24 – at a news conference with Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval – that he couldn’t support the GOP health care bill. “It’s simply not the answer,” Heller said at the time.
Almost immediately, a Trump-aligned super PAC – America First Policies – announced an ad campaign slamming Heller for the decision. Amid huge blowback, the group pulled its ads after just 12 hours.
That’s the context into which Trump’s not-a-threat-but-yes-this-is-definitely-a-threat lands. And, it comes just days after it was reported that Trump himself has spoken to three potential Republican primary opponents of Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who has been an outspoken Trump critic and is up for re-election in 2018.
The message from all of that is unmistakeable: If you like being a senator, you’ll get on board with me. Or else.
For those who say Trump was joking and the media is over-analyzing it all, consider:
- The look on Heller’s face, which makes clear that he knows Trump isn’t really joking.
- These words from Trump: “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he? And I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they’re gonna appreciate what you hopefully will do.” How else could anyone take that comment?
- The body language from Trump as he places his hand on Heller’s arm to make him stop laughing.
Trump knows exactly what he is doing here. He was making sure not only Heller but everyone else in that room – the wavering or opposed senators were clustered in and around Trump and Vice President Mike Pence – as well as anyone who saw the clip replayed later knew that he had put all of the GOP senators on notice. The threat had been delivered! He was tough!
Here’s the thing: It’s not going to work. Heller knows Nevada better than Trump. (Flashback: Trump saying that the people in the state of Nevada actually mispronounce the state’s name.) Trump saying Heller better change his mind or else isn’t going to actually, well, change Heller’s mind. Same goes for Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia. Or Susan Collins in Maine.
Trump, in his own reckoning, already tried the carrot approach with senators. Now he’s going to the stick. But this is a lost cause. The Senate will vote next week. Repeal will almost certainly fail. And the Senate will move on – no matter what Trump says.