As Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday fanned the flames of the Russia scandal that hangs over Donald Trump’s presidency, the White House appeared eager to change the subject to health care.
And that appears to be just fine with Democrats amid a messaging war over the Republicans’ crafting of a replacement for the 2010 health care law that Trump claims will be “far better” than the Obama-era system.
Sessions tussled with Democrats on the Intelligence panel Tuesday during dramatic testimony as Trump was en route to Wisconsin aboard Air Force One. The attorney general declined to answer questions about conversations with Trump, citing the potential that the White House could assert executive privilege — which has not yet happened.
And he denied meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States following a foreign policy speech last April by then-candidate Trump at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. Sessions defiantly pushed back on notions that his attending the same event as the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, would constitute proof of collusion.
The attorney general clashed with Sen. Ron Wyden over the Oregon Democrat’s contention that he was “stonewalling” the panel. Sessions hit back, accusing Wyden and others of besmirching him with “secret innuendo.” As the dramatic scenes played out on Capitol Hill, Air Force One was touching down in Milwaukee.
Health care pivot
The president first met with what the White House often calls “Obamacare victims,” then appeared with some to tell their tales of being slighted by the 2010 health care law. The president, sounding energized to be talking about health care again in a state he won in November, said American “citizens deserve so much better.”
He then pivoted to bashing congressional Democrats, telling an audience at General Mitchell International Airport that “the Democrats have let you down big league.” As he did earlier Tuesday in the White House’s Cabinet Room during a health care meeting with 15 Senate Republicans, Trump said the GOP push for a new law “will get no obstructionist Democratic votes.”
Trump and his top aides are ramping up their health care messaging as Senate Republicans accelerate their work, aiming to vote before a July 4 recess. But Republicans are finding an opposition party that appears up for a messaging fight.
He noted his relationship with McConnell since he became the Democratic leader is going “fine,” but he blasted the Kentucky Republican for “legislative malpractice” worse than he has seen during his 18-year Senate career “by any leader.” He was especially harsh on Pence, who huddled with the Senate GOP caucus on Tuesday after the White House meeting.
Schumer noted that Pence, during the 2009 health care debate when he was a member of the House GOP leadership team, urged Democrats that the American people deserved time to read the legislation, and that every member of Congress should commit to reading such a consequential bill.
“Today, no member of Congress can read the [GOP] bill because we don’t know what it is,” Schumer said, adding that Democrats had 160 hours of floor debate and adopted more than 150 GOP-crafted amendments.
“That’s what the process should look like,” he said. “It should be open, it should be fair, and not happen behind closed doors. The Republicans are so ashamed of this bill, they cannot even let a little sunshine light it up. They’re ashamed of the bill.”
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said the focus should be on the GOP’s health care legislation.
“My advice today: focus 10% of your attention/outrage on Sessions testimony, 90% on the secret health care bill that is speeding to a vote,” he tweeted.
My advice today: focus 10% of your attention/outrage on Sessions testimony, 90% on the secret health care bill that is speeding to a vote.
Hours earlier, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters that based on conversations he has had with senators, the possibility of that chamber passing a health care bill before the July 4 recess is “very, very small.”
Schumer and Hoyer’s comments come as Democratic campaign entities are hammering Republicans with what is largely a one-issue attack: health care.
Trump would like the Senate to reach a consensus sooner rather than later. But at the start of his lunch meeting on the subject with the GOP senators, the president seemed more patient than normal — he did not give the senators a hard deadline to finish a version that would have to be reconciled with a House-passed version before reaching Trump’s desk.
As glasses of iced tea with large lemon wedges affixed to the rims sat mostly untouched before the midday meal was served, Trump told reporters he merely wanted the GOP senators to finish their version of the legislation “as soon as we can.”
The often-demanding president praised Republican senators for “working very, very hard.” Without getting into specifics, Trump predicted the Senate will pass a “phenomenal bill” that will feature a “great health care plan” that will be “far better” than the Obama-era law.
Beyond health care
Meanwhile, as the Capitol prepared for Session’s testimony about Russia and former FBI Director James B. Comey’s firing, White House aides were eager to to cast Tuesday as just another day in the West Wing.
Aides were seen carrying lunches back to their desks or notebooks to their next meeting. Workers moved boxes of sodas around, and a crew loaded furniture into a white box truck through the same door used by Trump to welcome world leaders to the White House.
A black squirrel paused around 1 p.m. after dropping something on a driveway, scooped it up, and sprinted toward a tree on the edge of the North Lawn.
A reporter climbed a small ladder and watched what appeared to be some of the Republican senators leaving after the lunch meeting via a side door on West Executive Drive. As they did, Marine One roared into sight and landed on the South Lawn near the Oval Office to ferry Trump to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for his flight to Wisconsin.
In many ways, it was like any other day at the executive mansion. Only, for the second time in five days, it was anything but. Not only did the day feature more high-profile testimony related to the Russia matter, it came as the White House refused to deny that the president is “considering” firing special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s now leading the FBI’s Russia probe.
White House aides also pressed forward with what is being called “workforce development week” at the executive mansion.
As part of this theme, Trump left Washington just before Sessions began to testify on a trip that served several purposes — not just to talk about health care but workforce issues.
So Trump not only talked health care in Wisconsin. He toured a community college and held a roundtable on “workforce development.” He also participated in a fundraiser for Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker.
But even as the White House was eager to cast Trump as a getting-things-done president, the Russia matter just wouldn’t go away back in Washington.
His attorney general aggressively denied any involvement in any possible collusion with Russian officials as they interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
“I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you, and … the suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for 35 years,” a clearly angry Sessions sharply told his colleagues, “or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”
But even amid that passionate denial, Democrats appear eager for a fight.
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony left far too many questions unanswered,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley said. “It is abundantly clear there was inappropriate contact between President Trump’s campaign and the Russians that must be investigated and explained in detail to the American people.”