President Donald Trump took a victory lap on Capitol Hill Tuesday, emboldened by the end of the special counsel’s Russia probe, even as Democrats demanded the release of Robert Mueller’s full report and intensified their focus on health care and other policy disputes.
The Affordable Care Act took centre stage for both parties after a season of congressional business that’s been mostly about Trump, including the investigations and the government shutdown. Democrats believe health care is a big reason they were able to flip the House to their control last fall, and Trump told Republican lawmakers that figuring out the GOP version of the law will be a priority ahead of the 2020 elections.
Radiating a sense of vindication, Trump strode into the Senate Republicans’ lunch flanked by party leaders. GOP senators applauded.
“It could not have been better,” Trump said of the summary of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr, which did not find the president colluded with Russia over the 2016 elections. But Trump, too, was quick to turn to policy and the future, claiming, “The Republican Party will soon be known as the party of health care. You watch!”
Inside the meeting, he urged Republicans to figure out a way to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and replace it with a GOP version, a major Trump goal that has eluded the party during the first years of his presidency.
“I was a little surprised he came out of the chute in health care,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., after the meeting “He wants us to try again.”
“He’s in a very good mood. He’s in a good form,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “He’s always high energy. He had a little extra today.”
Trump’s trip to Capitol Hill came right after his administration said late Monday it would not defend the Affordable Care Act in a court challenge — and as the House Democrats, led by Pelosi, were unveiling a sweeping measure to rescue the program, also known as “Obamacare.”
At her own closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday, Pelosi urged rank-and-file Democrats to “be calm” and focus on policy promises that helped propel them to the House majority last fall. That means advocating for a robust policy agenda to improve health care and pay while conducting the oversight of the Trump administration many voters want.
“Let’s just get the goods,” Pelosi said, according to an aide in the room granted anonymity to discuss the private caucus meeting.
The advice was reinforced by Obama, who counselled freshman Democrats at a reception Monday night.
Obama advised the newly elected lawmakers to listen to constituents — and also identify issues they feel so strongly about that they’d be willing to lose their House seats in fights over them, according to multiple people at the private party.
The former president recalled that as a state legislator he gave priority to his constituents, which helped keep his popularity high enough in Illinois that he could advocate for bold policy ideas.
The challenges for Democrats come as Trump has made clear he’s fired up to go on offence against those who propelled the narrative that he colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election.
Even before he arrived in the Senate, Trump tweeted his message about health care. When he walked into a cloistered parlour to lunch with Republicans, they applauded him.
Ahead of the Senate meeting, Trump was in a combative mood. He tweeted against the “mainstream media” as “corrupt and FAKE” for pushing the “Russian Collusion Delusion,” previewing attacks on other opponents to come.
He has promised to go after those who did “evil” things, perpetuating the collusion narrative.
Attorney General Barr’s summary said the special counsel’s probe didn’t find collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to tilt the 2016 presidential election. Mueller did not determine whether Trump obstructed justice in the investigation, but Barr and his team said no prosecution was warranted.
Trump allies, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have encouraged him to use the political capital he’s now gained to accomplish policy goals. “Let’s go on about governing the country,” said Graham, who spent the weekend with the president in Florida.
The chairman of the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., stood up at the closed-door meeting and told his colleagues the most important thing now is the work on the ACA, according to those in the room.
Other leaders backed up the focus on policy.
“I believe that the Mueller report has been done. That’s a chapter that’s closed,” House Democratic Whip James Clyburn said on CNN. Health care, he said, “is the number one thing on people’s minds.”
On the Trump-Russia track, Democrats pressed the Justice Department to provide the full report from Mueller, saying Barr’s four-page synopsis was insufficient.
“I haven’t seen the Mueller report. I’ve seen the Barr report. And I’m not going to base anything on the Barr report,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
“The president is saying he’s been completely and totally exonerated by the report. The one sentence we’ve seen from the report says this is not an exoneration of the president.”
Many Democrats say Barr is conflicted because of his views — expressed in a memo to the administration before becoming attorney general — that the president cannot be charged with obstruction since he oversees the Justice Department.
“You can’t move forward on a four-page memo,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. “It’s hard for me to accept that as an objective opinion.”
Trump said the release of Mueller’s full report “wouldn’t bother me at all,” and Democrats quickly put that statement to the test.
Six House Democratic committee chairmen wrote to Barr and asked to have Mueller’s full report by April 2. If not, they have suggested subpoenas could be issued.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Jill Colvin, Alan Fram, Mike Balsamo and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.
Mary Clare Jalonick, Lisa Mascaro And Laurie Kellman, The Associated Press