The last time Donald Trump hosted a “listening session,” he ate up most of a Black History Month event lecturing some of the nation’s foremost black leaders on the glories of his electoral win. But people change! Perhaps the responsibilities of the office have sobered our blowhard in chief and flushed the wax from the presidential ears. On Monday morning, Trump brought his cochlea to the Roosevelt Room of the White House for another listening session, this time on health care. A group of men and women sat at a long mahogany table, sharing their stories of the agonies visited upon them by Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Trump sat in the center, the Obamacare victims fanned gratefully around him like the family around the turkey in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want. Listening, commence!
Trump began listening by talking without interruption for a little more than five minutes. “The insurance companies are fleeing. They’re gone; so many gone,” he said in his opening monologue, sounding like a cross between Eeyore, Pete Seeger, and the narrator of the London Bridge section of “The Waste Land.” He promised that, soon, rates would “go down, down, down” and plans would “go up, up, up.”
The listening session continued with Trump listening to himself lament that the media portrayed “the very, very failed and failing Obamacare law” as “so wonderful.”
“It’s a bit like President Obama,” he observed. “When he left, people liked him. When he was here, people didn’t like him so much.”
Trump closed his initial remarks by praising himself for telling Tom Price and Paul Ryan that they shouldn’t allow the ACA to implode. Although such a maneuver might work to the Republicans’ advantage, the president said, “that’s the wrong thing to do for the country.” Everyone at the table seemed to agree that the GOP lieutenants were lucky to receive such wise tutelage in both statecraft and ethics.
OK, now it was time to listen. The guests began to introduce themselves and deliver their tales of woe, each one seemingly handpicked to emblematize a different failure of the ACA. A Texas doctor described all the patients left uncovered by the Medicaid expansion, strangely failing to acknowledge that Texas has declined to expand Medicaid. A small business owner said she and her husband could not afford to offer health insurance to their employees. A pro-life activist expressed anger at the public funding of abortion. Some of the stories were heartrending. Rising premiums, steep deductibles, and the tax penalty for opting out of coverage had forced several of the guests to change jobs or seek out additional sources of income. Sick family members—disabled daughters, parents with cancer—had been unable to access medical services.
Trump’s task here was a simple one. The president had to convince everyone he was paying attention and that he cared. His listening strategy had several interlocking components.
- Lean forward.
- Tilt head to the side.
- Say “right” at appropriate intervals.
- Make sure fingers are either interlaced, touching, or massaging temple.
- If a dollar amount is mentioned, nod. This ensures a reasonable amount of nodding, which suggests the absorption of information. It also aligns with the president’s image as a serious businessman who “gets” money.
Trump made some subtler moves as well. At times, he seemed to be listening for keywords, so he might be able to interrupt with a riff or a leading question. “So, it’s gone through the roof,” he prompted one man who wasn’t exactly getting to the point about his deductible. “So, the health care, the Obamacare … actually forces you to get another job,” he summarized when a Wisconsin nurse threatened to float away in personal reminiscence.
Occasionally Trump zoned out and lost the thread. “And how have you found Obamacare?” he inquired of an attractive brunette to his right, 90 seconds or so into her spiel about her struggles with Obamacare.
Perhaps he was fantasizing about well-done steak while a trauma surgeon from Tennessee waxed prolix about his patients in rural Appalachia. “So. You’ve seen a big problem, and the way out of the problem is to do … a plan … much more like the plan we’re going to get done,” Trump stammered when the doctor fell silent.
Trump was also courteous enough to feed lines to some of his guests. “Very unfair,” he interjected into one man’s account of having his health insurance canceled. “And you represent a lot of people in the same situation.”
“Absolutely,” the man agreed.
“It’s very unfair,” repeated Trump.
“I think it’s very, very unfair,” the man said, catching on.
Likewise, when a black attorney talked about how he’d supported Trump during the campaign, the president did not ask him to elaborate on his experience under the ACA. Instead, he praised either the lawyer’s activism or his line reading. “Great job,” he said.
After just more than a half hour, Trump asked Mike Pence if he had anything to say. “I think what these great Americans see in high relief is that you’re someone who puts people over politics,” the vice president replied. Pence then thanked his boss for his “compassionate leadership,” and Trump nodded in agreement. The listening session was over. The most important person in the room had heard what he needed to hear.