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Trump Learned a Lesson on Dealmaking During Health Care Debacle: Sources

Donald Trump reacts after Republicans abruptly pulled their health care bill from the House floor on March 24, 2017. (Credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Republican sources close to the White House, aides inside the Trump administration, and GOP congressional staff involved in the health care process appear to agree on one thing: President Donald Trump has received a stinging lesson on dealmaking in Washington.

“He didn’t care or particularly know about health care,” a key GOP congressional aide said about Trump following the stunning defeat of the Republican health care plan Friday.

“If you are going to be a great negotiator, you have to know about the subject matter,” the aide said, adding that overhauling health care is far different from building a golf course.

One senior administration official said the President obviously learned some lessons about the “power” of special interests working against the bill, which leadership pulled back from consideration after it became clear it didn’t have the support to get passed.

And Trump singled out some of those interests in a tweet Sunday morning, blaming the conservative House Freedom Caucus and aligned advocacy groups, including Club for Growth and Heritage Action, for the failure of the legislation.

But one GOP source close to the White House said the health care fiasco is also a revealing moment for House Speaker Paul Ryan and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, two longtime Washington insiders.

The decision to delay the vote marks an acute embarrassment for the President, but the failure of the GOP plan also puts Ryan in a much-weakened political position.

“Trump hadn’t failed in politics until Reince and Ryan got involved,” the GOP source said.

Trump and his top aides also appeared to have moments when they alienated both the conservative and moderate Republicans needed to close the deal.

At one meeting Trump held with members of the “Tuesday Group,” an informal caucus of moderate Republicans, the lawmakers went around the room and answered where they stood on the bill. When Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent said he was a “no,” Trump replied, “Why am I even talking to you?”

Other GOP operatives close to the more centrist faction of the party complained that the moderates were simply ignored, damaging the bill’s prospects more than the White House realized.

Ahead of the vote, Trump slammed members of the Freedom Caucus, who were the most outspoken conservative critics of the bill.

“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!” he tweeted.

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon had his own run-in with the Freedom Caucus, which features many of his fellow like-minded conservatives.

“I don’t give a shit what you guys think,” Bannon exclaimed at a Thursday night meeting with the caucus, a source familiar with the meeting said. The sense in the room was Bannon lost his cool.

Trump, for his part, would agree to concessions to the group without thinking about the impact on moderate Republican votes, the same source added.

After caucus members lobbied the White House, Republican leaders added a provision to eliminate an Obamacare requirement that health insurers cover services such as maternity care, mental health treatment and prescription drugs. But caucus members still didn’t think the revisions went far enough in repealing the law.

Two sources in the Freedom Caucus meeting in the White House Cabinet Room on Thursday confirmed that the President, when pressed about some of their policy concerns with the bill, said, “Forget about the little shit.” Politico first reported the exchange.

“Some members wanted to talk about the policy aspect of the bill, and that wasn’t something he wanted to talk about,” said a Freedom Caucus member who was in the room. “He wanted to talk about the big picture.”

“I got the sense that he had delegated a lot of the specifics to White House personnel and/or Paul Ryan and/or house leadership, and he was going to support whatever they came up with regardless of good or bad, as long as it was some kind of repeal and replacement,” said the caucus member, who asked not to be quoted by name in order to talk freely about the private meeting.

During a caucus meeting Thursday night, in which Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers that the negotiations were over and Trump wanted a vote, members gave a series of emotional speeches about the need to stand together and fight.

After a while, South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford got up, according to two sources familiar with the meeting, said he noticed only men had spoken so far, and there had been a lot of testosterone in the room.

“I’m here to tell you, sometimes that testosterone can get you in trouble,” Sanford said.

The former South Carolina governor, who had been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012, was alluding to an extramarital affair that led to his resignation as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association in 2009 and his divorce a year later.

But his comments underscore some of the criticisms of the bill and of those who negotiated it in the final hours of discussions. Democrats, women’s groups and liberals pointed out that a meeting between Trump and members of the Freedom Caucus on Thursday, a photo of which Vice President Mike Pence posted on Twitter, didn’t include any women — a fact that plays into criticisms that caucus members sought to repeal the Obamacare requirement that insurers provide maternity benefits.

A senior administration official also told CNN that White House officials “underestimated the acrimony inside the caucus.”

The official conceded it was something they should have seen clearly given the House GOP’s atmospherics over the past seven years, but the White House assumed, wrongly, that because the Freedom Caucus members represent districts where Trump won big, things would be different now.

“It wasn’t about the policy,” the administration source said. “It didn’t matter what policy we made because they (the Freedom Caucus) didn’t want a deal. We were captives in an internal House caucus fight. The Freedom Caucus had too much interest in killing this to send a message to Speaker Ryan: ‘You have too much power.'”

However, the administration official said Trump is less likely to pay the caucus much heed going forward.

“I think the Freedom Caucus made a mistake in the end,” the official said. “This is a President who wanted to work with them, and he is dismissive of them now.”

Trump expressed his disappointment with the group, but referred to them as “friends” after the vote was pulled Friday.

“They’re friends of mine,” he said. “I’m disappointed because we could have had it. I’m a little surprised, to be honest with you.”

On Friday, caucus member Justin Amash, of Michigan, argued the group had done nothing more than exercise its authority to improve the legislation — despite dire warnings from the White House and leaders that voting against the bill could hurt the President’s agenda and threaten the party’s political future.

“It’s in dictatorships where someone just comes up with a product and that’s it,” he said. “That’s the final product. In our system, our constitutional republic, we tried something. It might fail, then we try again.”