Donald Trump would like us to believe that he is at once the most powerful man on the planet and the one who is least responsible for anything that goes wrong. This is a tough nut to crack. It means that when, say, his American Health Care Act fails to attract the necessary votes to replace Obamacare, it is totally not his fault and also all his idea. The psychic contortions that Trump must undergo in order to occupy both of these poles simultaneously are a marvel to behold.
In an astonishing interview with Washington Post reporter Robert Costa after the defeat of his signature legislation on Friday, Trump emphasized that he is “a team player.” “I’ve played this team,” he said, referring to the Republican Party. “I’ve played with the team. And they just fell a little bit short.” They, huh? That’s quite an artful trick: If Trump had gone it alone, had unleashed the full force of his genius on the bill and the campaign to pass the bill, perhaps he could have fixed health care for millions of suffering Americans. But like a benevolent and bashful god, he wanted to let his surrogates figure it out for themselves.
Except, wait. The president would have rather let the country’s health care system disintegrate than exercise his formidable negotiating prowess? Playing Great Enlightenment Watchmaker mattered that much to him? Even Trump, ultimately, didn’t seem to find such a position tenable. To explain away Friday’s result, he therefore needed to blame a force far beyond his control—indeed, one beyond the ability of any mortal to counteract.
Apparently, it was the brokenness of Capitol Hill that had prevented Congress from unifying behind the proposal. “Look, you can say what you want,” Trump told Costa. “But there are years of problems, great hatred and distrust, and, you know, I came into the middle of it.”
Or the intransigent Freedom Caucus. “I think they made a mistake, but that’s OK,” mourned Trump.
Or—especially, but also most nonsensically, because the president and the GOP reportedly made no effort to whip votes from the left side of the aisle—the Democrats. “We couldn’t get one Democrat vote, not one,” Trump raged, speaking to reporters from the Oval Office on Friday. “When you get no votes from the other side, meaning the Democrats, it’s really a difficult situation.”
OK. So the horrible, no good, very bad Left—which controls roughly zero branches of government—scuttled Trump’s centerpiece initiative to undo the biggest piece of progressive legislation of the past 50 years. He could not have averted disaster. The system was rigged. Goodness, don’t hold him responsible for the AHCA’s failure.
Something seemed off here, though. Trump is the “ultimate closer.” He wrote The Art of the Deal. Trump campaigned on the proposition that he “alone could fix” D.C. And the very day he came into office, he promised, he would repeal and replace Obamacare; he would drain the swamp; he would build a wall; he would make America great again.
But wait! The thing is, Trump actually wanted the replacement bill to founder. “I’ve been saying for years that the best thing is to let Obamacare explode and then go make a deal with the Democrats,” he told Costa. “The beauty is that they own Obamacare. So when it explodes, they come to us, and we make one beautiful deal for the people.”
Hear that? The beauty. Trump is wise and powerful. Trump allowed the Democrats to dash his own party’s hopes of crafting a new health care framework for the entire country so that these Democrats could own the political liability of their framework so that they could then come to the table after it explodes so that he could build a shining new deal out of Obamacare’s ashes. This, for him, would be the best possible outcome. And, lucky for him, it happened! At the same time, though, the fact that Trump persists in flogging such a narrative reveals his fundamental callousness. Speaking to Costa, Trump crowed that “when people get a 200 percent [premium] increase next year or a 100 percent or 70 percent, that’s their [the Democrats’] fault.”
“Here’s the good news,” he added. “Health care is now totally the property of the Democrats.”
In Trump’s mind, both his political victory and his adversaries’ humiliation equates to heartache for the country that elected him. Yet by some quirk of metaphysics, the triumph belongs to him, and citizens’ pain goes straight to the door of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
Of course, before the AHCA went down in flames, the president wasn’t interested in even this spin: He gave a rally last month insisting that the Republicans needed to present an alternative to the Obamacare “disaster.” “We can’t do that to the American people,” he rumbled, of his aforementioned plan to let Obamacare die of its own weight, consequences to actual humans be damned. “We have to fix it. And we will.”
But Trump can no longer tell that story. Now he’s stuck between the myth of his omnipotence and a desperate need to evade accountability for his administration’s failures. His grandiosity has always been at odds with his throbbing sense of persecution: If you’re so effective at enacting your will, then who cares if the judge is biased or the press is unfriendly? The contradiction is only growing sharper as this presidency goes south. It turns out that Trump presented the country with a contract bogged down in 500 pages of fine print. He’d make our lives immeasurably better, he vowed, as long as the progressives cooperated, the Freedom Caucus played nice, the Tuesday Group signed off, and a thousand other things wholly beyond his control went his way.
So now Trumpcare is dead, and here we are. On one hand, our canny leader has forced those dastardly Democrats to suffer a huge political liability in watching their favored health care law live to see the light of day. But on the other hand, Trump’s own brilliant bill is languishing on the pyre, and the president is standing next to it intoning bromides about the inescapable evanescence of life. After all, what could he do? What could anyone do? Trump is just one president, one tremendous president, with more brains, money, and power than you’ve ever seen, believe me.