Donald Trump sought on Sunday to spread blame for the failure of his first attempt at passing major legislation, the replacement of Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.
As internecine squabbling continued in the Republican party, the president’s targets included conservatives in Congress, Democrats and, possibly, House speaker Paul Ryan.
On Twitter on Sunday morning, Trump wrote: “Democrats are smiling in DC that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club for Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & O[bama]care.”
He was referring to the advocacy group Club for Growth, as well as the Heritage Foundation thinktank and likely its advocacy offshoot Heritage Action for America, all conservative groups with influence on the members of the Freedom Caucus.
That hard-right House group’s withdrawal of support along with some Republican moderates caused Ryan and Trump to pull the health bill before a vote on Friday.
Provocatively, Trump lumped such groups together with congressional Democrats and mentioned Planned Parenthood, a federally funded provider of women’s healthcare services that is a lightning rod for anti-abortion groups.
Debate also continued about whether Trump or members of his administration had orchestrated an unusual attack on Ryan on Saturday, despite professions of unity from both the White House and the House speaker’s camp. Trump and Ryan spoke by phone for an hour on Saturday.
In the morning, the president used Twitter to tell the public to watch a show on Fox News at 9pm, Judge Jeanine.
The former judge, prosecutor, district attorney and Republican political candidate from New York Jeanine Ferris Pirro then opened her show by saying: “Paul Ryan needs to step down as speaker of the House … He failed to deliver the votes.”
Trump’s senior adviser, Steve Bannon, is a former publisher of the hard-right website Breitbart, which has been harshly critical of Ryan.
Mick Mulvaney, formerly a member of the Freedom Caucus and now Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, denied any move against the speaker.
“Never once have I seen him blame Paul Ryan,” Mulvaney said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “The people who are to blame are the people who would not vote yes.”
Mulvaney was one of the leading officials lobbying House Republicans to pass the bill, which was pulled less than an hour before lawmakers were due to vote.
“We haven’t been able to change Washington in the first 65 days,” Mulvaney said. “I know the Freedom Caucus. I helped found it. I never thought it would come to this.”
He would have been prepared to vote for the legislation, he said.
Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union about whether Trump had a motive to attack Ryan indirectly by flagging up the Fox News show, New York Republican Lee Zeldin, who supported the GOP healthcare bill, said he believed the president “wouldn’t know that’s what was going to be said”.
About Ryan, he added: “I think he should stay as speaker.”
The leader of the Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, said on ABC’s This Week healthcare reform was not dead, despite the failure of Ryan’s American Health Care Act (AHCA) and the president’s indications that he is ready to move on to tax reform.
“It’s like saying that Tom Brady lost at halftime,” Meadows said, in reference to the New England Patriots’ astonishing Super Bowl comeback win against the Atlanta Falcons in February.
“I still believe that there is a good chance, if moderates and conservatives can come together, that we repeal and replace Obamacare, bring premiums down, cover more people.”
Asked about rumors that he himself could replace Ryan as speaker, and if he supported Ryan, Meadows dodged both questions.
“There is no conversations [sic] going on right now with regard to replacing the speaker,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck with regard to Obamacare, tax reform, the border wall.”
Newt Gingrich, a former Republican speaker who became close to Trump during the 2016 election, was critical of the president’s approach to legislative action.
“Don’t set up an artificial deadline to fail,” he said on Fox News Sunday, referring to Trump and Ryan’s failed promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on its seventh anniversary.
“Paul Ryan is a brilliant policy guy,” Gingrich said. But he added: “The congressional leadership still wants to behave as if they are in a pre-Trump world, and Trump trusted them. They were saying to him: ‘We have the votes.’”
Ohio governor John Kasich, an opponent of Trump in last year’s primary and a consistent critic since, also said healthcare reform was not dead but admitted that his party was badly split.
“I think there was a tug of war inside the administration,” he said on CNN, adding that Democrats should share blame for not working with Republicans. Lawmakers could not now “walk away, close their eyes and lock the door”, Kasich said.
Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who ran strongly for the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform of universal healthcare coverage, was predictably scathing of Republican efforts at reform.
It was “disastrous piece of legislation”, he said.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, speaking on ABC, said Democrats would work with Republicans to tweak the ACA if they dropped the goal of repealing it.
“We never said it was perfect,” Schumer said, adding: “The American people hated ‘Trumpcare’. The more they learned about it, the more they didn’t like it. And I want to salute all the ordinary people out there who called and wrote and picketed.”
Trump has said the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare, will simply “explode” by itself. Democrats say that stance undermines healthcare services.
Schumer said: “For the president to say he will undermine it, that’s not presidential. That’s petulance.”