Trump claims 'Obamacare is dead' despite failure to repeal legislation

Lauren Gambino in Washington
Donald Trump blamed Republicans for the failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act: ‘I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest. They’re not getting the job done.’ Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump on Monday absolved himself of responsibility for Republicans’ failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and predicted voters will blame Democrats if the law crumbles under sustained assault from his administration.

“Obamacare is finished,” Trump told reporters before a cabinet meeting. “It’s dead. It’s gone. You shouldn’t even mention it. It’s gone. There is no such thing as Obamacare any more.”

The president faulted Republicans in the Senate for falling one vote short of repealing the 2010 law, saying: “I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest. They’re not getting the job done.”

In a subsequent Rose Garden press conference with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Trump insisted that he and his “friend” were “close” to achieving healthcare reform. The appearance by the two men followed an Oval Office lunch at which subjects for discussion included former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s call for “war” on McConnell and the party establishment.

“My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding,” said Trump of McConnell, whom he had attacked in August for the “disgrace” of failing to repeal the ACA.

On the campaign trail last year, Trump promised supporters he would repeal the ACA and replace it with “something much better for everybody”. Last week he announced he would end “cost-sharing reduction” (CSR) payments to insurance companies that help subsidize insurance for millions of lower-income Americans.

The decision followed an executive order that would allow insurance companies to sell plans that fall short of coverage requirements under Barack Obama’s law.

Democrats accused Trump of sabotaging the ACA – in the words of the Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, “literally setting the entire healthcare system on fire just because [he] is upset that the United States Congress won’t pass a repeal bill”.

Bannon seemed to agree. “Then you had Obamacare,” he said at the Values Voter Summit on Saturday. “Not gonna make the CSR payments, gonna blow that thing up, gonna blow those [insurance] exchanges up, right?”

Trump has repeatedly called the CSR payments “bailouts” for insurance companies. They are in fact subsidies to such companies to make coverage less expensive for low-income people. Congressional Republicans sued the Obama administration over the issue, accusing it of executive overreach. A federal court said the payments were illegal and the case is pending before the US court of appeals for the DC circuit.

Talks on ACA reform between Senate Republicans and Democrats were on track last month before a Republican senator attempted to revive a plan for full repeal, which Democrats refuse to discuss. On Monday, Trump said his decision to cut subsidies was forcing both parties to come to the table.

“We need tax cuts,” he said. “We need healthcare. Now, we’re going to get the healthcare done. In my opinion, what’s happening is, as we meet – Republicans are meeting with Democrats because of what I did with the CSR, because I cut off the gravy train. If I didn’t cut the CSRs, they wouldn’t be meeting. They’d be having lunch and enjoying themselves, all right?”

He predicted that a new bill would be forthcoming but said: “Sadly, the Democrats can’t join us on that, which will be the long-term fix. But I do believe we’ll have a short-term fix because I think the Democrats will be blamed for the mess. This is an Obamacare mess.”

Republicans are not uniformly behind him. On Sunday, Susan Collins of Maine was interviewed on CNN. She joined with other senators to defeat two attempts to repeal and replace the ACA.

“What the president is doing is affecting the ability of vulnerable people to receive healthcare right now,” she said.

Donald Trump arrives to speak with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in the Rose Garden at the White House on Monday. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

In freewheeling comments before Monday’s cabinet meeting, Trump touched on other issues including the wildfires in California (“very sad thing to watch”); his disavowal of the Iran deal (“I’m tired of being taken advantage of”); the mental state of the gunman who killed 58 people and injured nearly 500 in Las Vegas (“the wires were crossed pretty badly in his brain”); the opioid crisis (“the drug companies quite frankly are getting away with murder”); and his campaign promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico (“More than ever we need the wall”).

Discussing his meeting with McConnell, Trump called Bannon his friend and said he “fully understands” his anger at the Republican establishment.

“There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.

In the Rose Garden later, Trump turned his fire back on to congressional Democrats. He liked the “concept” of working with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, he said, but: “Right now, they are doing nothing but obstructing.”