Methinks he doth protest too much

The Affordable Care Act has been a strategic failure 

Methinks he doth protest too much
This is written at the end of a bad week for President Trump. By the time readers see this piece, who can say what other misfortunes will have set his administration back even further. His first big legislative project—a new and reformed national health care bill—turned into a disaster. This was an enormous blow to a President who has trouble admitting when he is wrong and has an enormous desire to deflect all blame for small, medium, or humongous mistakes. The vote was scheduled first for last Thursday, then postponed until Friday while the President lectured recalcitrant Republicans on why they had to vote for the bill. And when it was apparent on Friday that his stern lectures had had little effect, and that the bill did not have the votes to pass, it was pulled from the House calendar.

Trump has, in turn, blamed the Democrats because they had announced long ago they would vote against the bill en masse, which put pressure on the Republicans to come up with a bill that would have general public support. (Despite the continual slanging of President Obama’s healthcare bill of 2009, many aspects of it were very popular with the public.) Trump’s ire then turned on the Tea Party conservatives who were also planning a bloc vote against the bill. Finally, he turned on the moderate Republicans, some of whom also pulled back from the bill because too many of the popular aspects had been traded away in an effort to get Tea Party support. So the Trump Administration, which every week seems to fall lower in public esteem, lost another notch or two in its public standing.

So the week ended with a disaster I wasn’t planning to write about. I could not have imagined that even an administration as clumsy as this one would walk with steely determination straight into a strategic failure as eminently avoidable as this was. The Affordable Care Act was heralded as the replacement to President Obama’s much-maligned health care reform of 2009. This was known as Obamacare, particularly to its detractors. Failure to have the Affordable Care Act come through the heavily Republican House of Representatives will possibly take a toll on the Republican Party itself as a coherent political force. This development is likely to reduce its willingness to walk in President Trump’s shadow with its legislative agenda.
Despite the continual slanging of President Obama's healthcare bill of 2009, many aspects of it were very popular with the public. The House of Representatives, controlled by the Republicans since 2010, tried around 50 times to repeal the law

The blame lies both with the Republican Congress, which is badly split ideologically, and the Trump Administration. After all, the President promised during his campaign and after taking office that his first priority would be to get rid of “Obamacare”. The Republican opposition to President Obama had, for most of his two terms, made repealing his health care law its signature policy. The House of Representatives, controlled by the Republicans since 2010, tried around 50 times to repeal the law, but was thwarted either by the Senate or by the President’s veto. It was the idea of “repeal” that had united the House Republicans, but clearly little thought was given to the “replace” part of the idea. In any event, it was the House Republicans who couldn’t agree on whether what kind of replacement bill would best redeem the Party’s pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare. One type of replacement bill would have had a lot of the popular Obamacare provisions. (This version would have been backed by moderate Republican moderates who clearly were listening to their constituents and wanted to keep their seats through the next election.) Another option was a replacement bill that would throw as many as 24 million people off the health care rolls. (This option was backed by the Tea Party, which makes one wonder if the far right has a suicide complex.)

On paper this would seem like a situation just made for a master dealmaker. Clearly, however, the author of “The Art of Making a Deal” found that making a deal in the world of politics requires something more than bombast, threats, and exhortations about party loyalty when that deal asks one group of political support to put their political careers on the line and another to abandon their deeply held political philosophy. It seems from the media reports that the President has exacerbated the intra-party tensions of the Republicans and ended up displeasing numerous members of his adopted party. Perhaps the lesson is that deals that work in the real estate world do not in the world of politics.

But I picked the title of this piece before the healthcare fiasco. This title has to do with what I think may, in the end, turn out to be the biggest news of the early months of President Trump’s administration, and perhaps of his entire tenure. We learned on Monday last week, officially, that the FBI is investigating the nature and the extent of the connection between the Trump campaign and Russia during last year’s election. From now for several months, maybe longer, there will be a steady drip drip of news, some of it from official testimony and some from leaks, and some from aggressive investigative reporting.

And it started in earnest on Monday, March 20 when James Comey, head of the FBI, testified for five hours in televised hearings of the House Intelligence Committee. It was the first official statement confirming that the FBI is investigating the extent of Russia’s meddling in the US elections in 2016, and examining the extent of contacts and collaboration between the Russians and persons in the Trump campaign team. Comey told the committee that the investigation had begun in July 2016, well before the election, but he claimed that “sensitivities” (unnamed and unexplained) delayed the FBI from acknowledging it until that day. This investigation will also assess whether any crimes have been committed and whether “there was coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians,” said Comey when explaining the breadth and depth of the investigation. “It may take months,” he said, and he could not give a timetable. At one point, the FBI Director explained that Russian interference was all focused on helping Trump, and said, “it was a fairly easy judgment for the community… Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that he had a clear preference to the person running against her.”

Predictably, during Comey’s testimony a flow of tweets issued from the President’s office, which, inter alia, urged the committee to look into the leaks that supplied the evidence that has led to the investigation. (The implication is that who leaked the information was more important than what was in it). They erroneously claimed that Comey had said already that the Russian interference had no direct effect on the election (effectively refuted by Comey himself). And that other intelligence officials had said that they saw no evidence of collusion (misleading and out of context). When I read this flow of tweets to five hours of testimony, I had two thoughts; 1) Does our President really have time to watch TV and send out a running Twitter commentary, and; 2) to paraphrase Hamlet’s Mother, methinks he doth protest too much—a phrase that has come to mean denying something so strenuously and often that others take what is being denied as probably true.

Comey’s testimony put to rest another loose end—an assertion in several Trump tweets a couple of weeks ago that President Obama had ordered that Trump be “wiretapped” during the campaign. That was denied firmly but gracefully by the former president, but the assertion was kept alive by varying explanations of what Mr. Trump had meant. Mr. Comey said forcefully that Presidents have no authority to order surveillance of anyone—that is done through a process which involves special (FISA) courts. Moreover, he said, in the bland tone of an intelligence official, “We don’t have any information that supports those tweets.”

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.