It was a “crushing defeat”, a “devastating loss” a “stunning reversal”, a “blow to the president’s brand”; and it all came crashing down on president Trump in the most brutal week of his young presidency. These were some of the phrases used by the media to describe Trump’s failure to deliver on his central promise during his long campaign; to repeal the Affordable Care Act better known as Obamacare, which became the rallying cry of the Republicans in congress for the last seven years. The supposedly legendary dealmaker, the man who wrote “The Art of the Deal”, (his co-author Tony Schwartz, later claimed “I wrote the Art of the Deal. Donald Trump read it) ,the negotiator called by his team at the White House “the closer”, who employs his negotiating skills that he had honed in the business world at the last minute to seal the deal, could not convince the disparate factions in his Republican party to agree on an alternative plan to Obamacare.
The plan was that the Republicans in one fell swoop will repeal and replace Obamacare on Thursday, the seventh anniversary of the passage of president Obama’s signature achievement. But members of the hardline conservative group known as Freedom Caucus who wanted a more radical law, kept up the resistance and forced a postponement of the vote to Friday. A frustrated Trump gave the recalcitrant purists a final ultimatum on the eve of the vote: take it or leave it, hoping to intimidate or shame them, but they remained an immovable object.
On Friday afternoon, when president Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan ,who is the principal author of the plan realized that they don’t have the majority of votes, decided to beat a retreat rather than suffer a humiliating disaster at the hands of their brethren. President Trump and his Republican allies in congress were tone deaf to the swelling opposition to their health care plan, from public opinion as well as from many medical associations, hospitals and retirement organizations. A new Quinnipiac University poll showed that only 17 percent of the public approves of the Republican’s American Health Care Act, while 65 percent disapproves.
Donald Trump’s first legislative battle ended in a resounding defeat. Trump and Ryan said that they are not planning to regroup and present a plan B, because there is none, and in fact the president said that he is happy to leave the wreckage of the health care plan he has been touting for more than a year behind. The American equivalents of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, will be spending their next weeks and months searching for new windmills to slay.
The cruelest of weeks
This was Trump’s cruelest week since he was elected, a week bookended by a pair of devastating blows. On Monday morning the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations FBI, James Comey Turned a hearing organized by the House Intelligence Committee into a historic event. Comey, who was accompanied by Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, made the extraordinary announcement that the FBI since last July, has been investigating whether members of candidate Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. Comey described the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the election as a “counterintelligence investigation”, but he added that it will “also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed” by American citizens in collusion with Russian operatives. Comey was putting all the president’s men and women, and maybe the president himself in his crosshairs when he vowed to pursue the investigation “no matter how long that takes”. This was a severe repudiation of president Trump, who has been insisting for months that “Russia is fake news”.
Director Comey, all but called president Trump a liar when he said that the FBI and the Department of Justice do not have any information that would corroborate president Trump’s wild accusation, in a series of morning tweets few weeks ago that former president Barack Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped” at Trump Tower. Comey’s rebuke was as definitive as one can expect in such circumstances. “With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to assure you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components."
Comey’s strong denial of such wiretapping, comes after similar denials proffered by the two chairmen of the intelligence committees in the House and the Senate as well as Speaker Ryan.
When Admiral Rogers was asked if he had requested British Intelligence to spy on Trump, as the White House has insinuated, he said: "No sir, nor would I, that would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement." He was referring to a special Intelligence sharing program among the five English speaking countries, The United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Admiral Rogers agreed with the assessment of British Intelligence, that such claim is “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous”.
The Republican Chairman of the committee Devin Nunes and his colleagues sought to focus their questions on the intelligence leaks in recent weeks about Russia’s intervention in the presidential elections, which led to the firing of president Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and on the need to stop such leaks, something that director Comey agreed with. All Republican members on the committee followed these talking points and tried to avoid inquiring about a historic violation of America’s democratic system, by Russia, the biggest adversary of the United States. After more than five hours of testimonies, Chairman Nunes summarized the gravity of the situation when he told Comey; “There is a big, gray cloud that you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country. And so the faster you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans.” Comey replied “I understand”.
The Trump administration kept reeling all week, as a result of Comey’s blow on Monday, which devastated Trump’s credibility and integrity as the president of the most important democratic country in the world, robbing him of any pretense of moral leadership, and the legislative blow he received on Friday, his 65th day in office has shattered his claims of effective political leadership.
The arsonist and the fireman
The reaction of the president to his rout in congress was vintage Trump. He refused to own the defeat and accept at least part of the responsibility, which was something Speaker Ryan came close to. Upon withdrawing the health care plan, Trump called journalists on their cell phones to put the blame on the Democrats, because none of them came to his rescue. He told Robert Costa of the Washington Post “We couldn’t get one Democratic vote, and we were a little bit shy, very little, but it was still a little bit shy, so we pulled it”. Trump said that he is willing to let Obamacare “explode” under its own weight, because he believes the Democrats will eventually sue for a new deal. “As you know, I’ve been saying for years that the best thing is to let Obamacare explode and then go make a deal with the Democrats and have one unified deal. And they will come to us; we won’t have to come to them,” he said. “After Obamacare explodes.”
President Trump’s first one hundred days in office are shaping up as the worst hundred days in any first term president in recent decadesHisham Melhem
Trump’s explanations were surreal, disjointed, incoherent and soaked in wishful thinking. “To be honest, the biggest losers today are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.” He was referring to the House minority leader and the Senate minority leader. “Because now they own the disaster known as Obamacare.”The beauty,” Trump continued, “is that they own Obamacare. So when it explodes, they come to us, and we make one beautiful deal for the people.” There was not a hint that he is now the president of the United States and all American citizens, and not a candidate. There was no sense of responsibility towards those millions of Americans who will be facing rising premiums if Obamacare is not reformed or restructured, as most observers say. Trump was acting as if he is the arsonist and the reluctant fireman. He is gleefully waiting for the “explosion” and the fire next time, when he will watch the whole medical system collapse rather than put out the fire. It was the most bizarre, flippant and reckless response from an American president to a defeat in memory.
One hundred days in the wilderness
President Trump’s first one hundred days in office are shaping up as the worst hundred days in any first term president in recent decades. All presidents face problems and hurdles in their first one hundred days. A great president like Franklin Roosevelt whose name is linked to the one hundred day concept got 15 major bills through Congress in his first one hundred days. President Obama got both chambers of congress to approve his economic stimulus package, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, within one month. Other presidents like John F. Kennedy faced disaster during their first one hundred days; in the case of JFK it was the stunning failure of the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion, that he ordered which hobbled his presidency for a long time. Inexperience and disorganization have exposed the shortcomings of past presidents during their first one hundred days. Bill Clinton's early foray into the complex issue of reforming health care doomed his plan which was led by the first lady Hillary Clinton. Other influential presidents like Lindon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, used their first one hundred days in office to prepare the ground for historic legislative accomplishments, particularly in the case of president Johnson.
Well into his first one hundred days, president Trump has very little to show fore. His health care plan has been abandoned, after deepening the ideological and political fissures in the Republican Party, a development that could lead to Republican fratricide if tax reform, the next objective of president Trump proves to be as divisive as the health care plan. The president, who thinks he can rule by signing Executive Orders, has discovered the limits of such means. The courts have blocked his two travel bans of citizens from seven majority Muslim countries, and his plan to build a wall on the Southern borders with Mexico, and selling the American people the illusion that Mexico will pay for it, looks like the mirages of America’s South-Western deserts. But what is most disturbing, is that Trump in his first one hundred days has become a lame president, wobbling and flailing in the political wilderness under a heavy ethical cloud that is likely to remain with him until the day he leaves the White House.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem