The White House went into full damage control mode on Saturday as Donald Trump tried to draw a line under his humiliating setback on healthcare, casting blame on Democratic opponents and promising to let Obamacare “explode” under its own weight.
Critics say his eleventh hour decision to withdraw a bill to repeal Obamacare shows his fragile position at the head of a divided party and casts doubt on his credentials as a negotiator.
Mr Trump immediately signaled he planned to move on to tax reform instead, but with a key policy in tatters he will still have to work out how to bridge faultlines among Republicans.
He took to Twitter on Saturday morning in an attempt to claim the disarray would not get in the way of demolishing Obamacare.
ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 25, 2017
“ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry,” he wrote.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said withdrawing the bill was a better option than getting dragged into a long and painful fight that they probably could not win.
The question now was how to move forward and learn from the experience.
“The president and the Republican leadership have to figure out who their friends really are and how do they build a lasting majority or even a bi-partisan majority,” he said.
Mr Trump had tried and failed to win over conservatives among the Freedom Caucus who believed his plans for a new healthcare policy were not sufficiently different from Obamacare.
All week officials suggested Mr Trump, whose best known book is The Art of the Deal, was the man to find a historic compromise.
“He is the closer,” is how Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, put it on Wednesday.
By his tally, Mr Trump met 120 Congressmen and women as he tried to muster the necessary votes.
Doubters were treated to pizza and bowling at the White House, lasagne dinners and phonecalls laden with celebrity anecdotes as part of the president’s charm offensive.
But at the centre of negotiations was a fundamental flaw.
Mr Trump had promised to protect popular elements of Obamacare, such as forcing insurance companies to offer coverage to anyone with a pre-existing condition. Every time he weakened his stance to placate conservatives, he lost moderates who knew their voters were worried about losing benefits.
“There's no natural constituency for this bill,” said Raul Labrador, a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, put it during the week.
Mr Trump’s response was to tell Republicans not to worry about the details but to focus on the win.
Without a clear grasp of the specifics, critics in his own party said he was unable to offer a proper compromise and the use of threats forced some opponents into a corner.
“Trump is a business executive. When he tells his lieutenants to get something done, he's used to it getting done,” one senior House Republican aide told Politico. “He’s really not used to getting involved himself.”
Insiders said Mr Trump was intent on forging ahead with the vote on Friday if only to be able to tally up the names of people who defied him, but eventually agreed with Mr Ryan’s assessment that the effort was futile.
“We had no votes from the Democrats,” said Mr Trump in the aftermath. “They weren’t going to give us a single vote, so it's a very difficult thing to do.
“I've been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode.”
The new Republican strategy is to let Democrats take the blame as Obamacare comes under increasing strain without an Obama White House to bail out the system before eventually trying again to replace it later.
Analysts said withdrawal was simply another name for the defeat of the president’s legislative agenda.
Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College, said Republican spin could not disguise what a catastrophic outcome this was for a president who claimed to be the ultimate dealmaker and a party that controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
“Something that you not only ran on but embraced and has been your calling card for seven years, since Obamacare passed, you now cannot even keep the first part promise to repeal it,” she said.
“They may blame the Democrats but the truth is they couldn’t get the votes from Republicans.”