WASHINGTON — For weeks, observers were wondering when President Donald Trump would focus on pushing recalcitrant Republicans to back a Senate bill to repeal and possibly replace Obamacare — so that Trump and GOP lawmakers could keep faith with a key campaign pledge dear to the GOP base.
Wednesday, Trump seized his bully pulpit. He invited all 52 Republican senators to the White House for a lunch at which he called out Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., in a way that left no doubt among other GOP Hamlets that if they voted against Trumpcare, it could cost them their jobs.
More than that, Trump had stopped hopscotching between legislative alternatives and finally laid out a commanding and persuasive conservative case for a Senate bill to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's signature health care package. He warned, "Any senator who votes against starting debate is really telling America that you're fine with Obamacare." Trump's strong words promised to make it more difficult for diffident Republicans to oppose a Republican bill.
As the 49 senators who came to the White House were leaving, three New York Times reporters prepared to interview the president.
Trusted aide Hope Hicks escorted Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt into the Oval Office. "Hi, fellas, how you doing?" Trump greeted the trio. Then followed a 50-minute everything-but-the-kitchen-sink rant that was sure to dominate the news and replace Trump's Senate lunch squeeze as cable news' top story.
Sure enough, the three-byline story was the main topic of Thursday's White House press briefing. East Coast news staples like MSNBC's "Morning Joe" spent Thursday morning digesting morsels from The New York Times interview, such as Trump's assertion that he never would have asked Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general if he'd known Sessions would recuse himself from a federal probe into Russian election meddling.
Once again, Trump left supporters wondering why the otherwise media-savvy president can't stop stepping on his own message.
"You'd almost think it's by design," said Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman now head of his own messaging and communications firm — except that Trump rarely benefits. "A week that's supposed to be about health care," said Bardella, "and he gives an interview where he throws his attorney general under the bus."
It was a strategic communications error in the same brand as the March 4 tweet in which Trump accused Obama of wiretapping phones at Trump Tower — right after Trump delivered a wildly received address to a joint session of Congress. Trump had been basking in the afterglow of that bipartisan-themed event.
One tweet, Bardella noted, "And there goes that conversation."
Trump voters are left with the choice of supporting his idiosyncratic style or questioning it.
Jim Hartman, who has been a delegate to four Republican National conventions, sees a presidency that is "going from serious condition to critical."
Hartman wishes Trump would heed his lawyer's advice, or that of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Hartman believes Trump will continue to hold onto his base — a "rock solid 36 to 40 percent of the electorate" — but parties don't win elections with 40 percent or less of the vote.
Hartman also fears Trump is undermining his ability to get things done. "How do you re-focus people onto health care if you're off message?"
Conservative author Tom Del Beccaro doesn't see a big problem. "Yes, it steps on his short-term message," Del Beccaro said from California, "but it is close to his long-play message, which is: this place is a mess and I need to drain the swamp."
The problem is, as Bardella sees it, Trump "doesn't move on from these things."
While some supporters fault the media for covering Trump pronouncements more closely than Trump policies, Bardella noted, "He is the most powerful person in the world," so what the president says is news.