President Donald Trump made clear Wednesday he supports his Justice Department’s move to back a full invalidation of the Affordable Care Act following a December court ruling, though it’s a decision that’s caused consternation.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Trump said he believes the ruling will “be upheld” by higher courts and “will do very well in the Supreme Court.” But his remarks also made clear the administration does not yet have a replacement ready to go.
“If the Supreme Court rules that Obamacare is out, we will have a plan that is far better than Obamacare,” Trump said.
But after a federal judge struck down the Affordable Care Act in its entirety in a December ruling, the Trump administration wrestled with the fallout.
A heated debate broke out among several of the President’s top advisers in the wake of the decision about whether the administration should support the judge’s ruling invalidating the entire law or instead maintain its position that only parts of the law should be struck down, a White House official and source close to the White House told CNN.
The debate pitted the President’s Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and now Attorney General William Barr – who opposed fully striking down the law – against acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and policy officials allied with him, a source close to the White House said.
Politico first reported the details of the internal debate.
Azar was concerned that invalidating the entire law would be a policy failure because there is no health care plan to replace Obamacare, the source close to the White House said, while Barr was more concerned that the underlying legal argument being made by the states to strike down the law in its entirety was wrong and would not be upheld in courts.
The debate unfolded over a series of meetings beginning in late December and culminated in an Oval Office meeting on Monday that turned fiery when White House counsel Pat Cipollone objected to Mulvaney’s position on invalidating Obamacare, a senior administration official said. Cipollone, according to this source, voiced concern about whether the administration would have a legal standing in the court filing, and noted that Attorney General Bill Barr agreed with him. Vice President Mike Pence, who agreed with Mulvaney about joining the lawsuit, also raised questions about what the White House strategy would be if the suit succeeded, according to the source. The New York Times first reported on that meeting.
Mulvaney and Joe Grogan, the head of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, pushed back on Cipollone’s concerns, believing the ruling would force Congress’ hand to pass legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare, two sources said.
The President ultimately sided with Mulvaney, eager to see President Barack Obama’s signature heath care law struck down, the senior administration official said.
“Secretary Azar fully supports the Administration’s litigation position in the Affordable Care Act case, which bears his name,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement.
The Justice Department and the White House declined to comment on the internal divide.
The administration’s position comes despite the lack of a viable Republican alternative to Obamacare. And if the December ruling striking down the law in its entirety is upheld, an estimated 20 million Americans could lose their health care coverage.
Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short told Wolf Blitzer Wednesday that Trump would introduce a health care plan to Congress sometime “this year.”
The Justice Department’s Monday filing surprised congressional Republicans and aides in the White House legislative affairs office. One White House official said legislative affairs aides have not been involved in discussions about developing legislation that would replace the health care law. Instead, they were working under the impression that passing the revamped United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement was the priority over the next several months, the aide said.
Trump on Tuesday appeared to tout his administration’s move to thrust health care at the center of the national political debate by reversing its previous position.
“Let me tell you exactly what my message is,” he said Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “The Republican Party will soon be known as the party of health care.”
But the lack of a viable alternative to Obamacare has left some Republicans concerned that the administration’s latest move will prove damaging heading into the 2020 campaign season. Democrats seized on health care as a galvanizing issue in the 2018 midterms in their successful bid to take back the House of Representatives, and Democrats are eager to once again make the Republican position of striking down Obamacare a central issue in 2020.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.