Health

Trump Camp Told Senator She Could Only Take Air Force One if She Voted for Health Bill

The list of senators bullied over healthcare keeps growing.

by Jesse Hicks
Aug 23 2017, 5:45pm

Mandel Ngan / Getty Images; Alex Wong / Getty Images

In the cutthroat world of Manhattan real estate, threats and bluster are simply part of the game. Donald Trump—who, to reiterate, never held political office before being elected President of the United States of America—has brought that same skill set to leading the free world. So when it came time to rally Congressional support for the bill to repeal Obamacare, Trump tried to bully one Senator by offering her a ride on Air Force One—but only if she voted his way.

According to the New York Times, the quid-pro-quo offer came around the time Trump made his now-infamous speech at the Boy Scouts jamboree in West Virginia on July 24. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican senator from the state, had expressed doubt about previous proposals to replace the Affordable Care Act. She'd also condemned repealing the ACA without a replacement, saying "My position on this issue is driven by its impact on West Virginians. With that in mind, I cannot vote to repeal Obamacare without a replacement plan that addresses my concerns and the needs of West Virginians."

Without the votes to pass the Senate health bill, Republicans were frantic to pass something. White House aides reportedly told Capito she could join Trump on the presidential plane to West Virginia if she committed to voting for the bill; presumably the so-called "skinny repeal" version, which wasn't even released until after Senators voted to begin debating repeal. She refused, saying that she couldn't guarantee a "yes" for a measure she hadn't seen. She ultimately voted in favor of two of the three Republican proposals—for the Senate health bill and the skinny repeal, and against a 2015 version of repeal—but all three were defeated in the Senate.

Capito wasn't the only senator to feel pressure from Trump and his administration. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, received a phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who, according to reports, warned that Murkowski's opposition to the health care bill "put Alaska's future with the administration in jeopardy." (That call, with its not-so-veiled threat, has led to an investigation.) Around the same time, Trump himself singled out Murkowski's vote against beginning the repeal debate with a tweet that she'd "really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!" Murkowski remained a firm no, and was one of the three Republicans, alongside Susan Collins and John McCain, who ultimately killed the skinny repeal bill.

Trump even directly threatened three other senators—one of whom was sitting right next to him at a lunch. Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas had simultaneously announced their opposition to beginning debate. The week before the White House allegedly tried to trade a ride on Air Force One for a "yes" vote from Capito, Trump called out Lee and Moran at a luncheon meant to drum up Senate support. "The other night I was surprised when I heard a couple of my friends—my friends—they really were and are," he said. "They might not be very much longer, but that's okay. I think I have to get them back."

Nevada senator Dean Heller faces re-election next year, and his approval rating is…not good. At the same lunch, Trump gestured to Heller, sitting next to him. He joshed about Heller's lack of support, then pointedly said, "And he wants to remain a Senator, doesn't he?" Despite the strained laughter in the room, the look on Heller's face suggests he got the message. Lee and Moran, though, won't face re-election until after Trump himself does, in 2020.

Ultimately, Heller, Lee, Moran, and Capito came around to voting yes. It's hard to say whether that was because of Trump's threats, or despite them. And with Trump's approval rating continuing to hit record lows, it's unclear how long such threats will remain effective—if they ever were. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for one, privately doubts Trump can save his presidency. If he's right, we might see another lesson that while dramatic threats and half-baked promises can take you far in real estate and reality television, things aren't quite the same in politics.

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