When that failed to move them sufficiently he added another threat: Vote with me or you'll never get another chance at health care reform. The Republicans gathered for an emotional pre-vote caucus in the basement of the Capitol. As they departed, many said it was one of the most impressive conferences they had ever attended. But when House Speaker Paul Ryan offered little more than a brief statement and dashed off without answering reporters' questions, the signs of defeat were apparent.
Having practiced his usual method of deal-making, Trump then walked away from the hard work of political negotiating. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, insisting there was no "plan B," predicted victory. While Ryan tried to get his House in order, the President climbed into a big-rig tractor parked outside the White House, sounded the horn like an excited boy and pretended he was driving. (He hadn't looked so happy in weeks.)
Despite all these expressions of confidence, the Republicans who run Washington never could come together behind Trumpcare. Hours before the vote, The Daily Beast reported that, according to officials in the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity, Trump's top adviser, Steve Bannon, wanted him to make a list of his House GOP enemies so they might be punished.
When this last tough-guy tactic failed, Trump and Ryan slammed on the brakes and canceled the showdown vote. CNN and other networks reported the debacle in real time and both men were left humiliated and diminished.
No one should be surprised that Trump's first big legislative initiative collapsed in a cloud of chaos. Aside from the development of his enormous ego, nothing in Donald Trump's life experience prepared him to actually function as president of the United States.
This became evident during the presidential transition, when he proved incapable of bringing the country together and then, upon his inauguration, when he immediately began offering lies and distortions about everything from the size of the crowd at the inauguration to the claim that the recent election was marred by massive voter fraud.
The most remarkable thing about the Trump presidency may be our expectation that he would be any different.
Since the Tea Party wave of 2010 that swept House Republicans into power, a raucous, intransigent and loosely aligned group of lawmakers known as the Freedom Caucus — most from heavily Republican districts — has often landed a punch to its own party’s face.
Friday’s defeat of the Republican leadership’s bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act was a return to form, handing an immense defeat to President Trump and embarrassing Speaker Paul D. Ryan in his own House. It also challenged the veracity of their long-held claims that a Republican president was all they needed to get big things accomplished.
The most important question for Republicans now is whether the members of the Freedom Caucus will find themselves newly emboldened in ways that may bring the new president more defeats — or whether Mr. Ryan will do what former Speaker John A. Boehner could not, and find a way to shred their influence for good.
“If you are defined by your opposition to leadership, it’s hard to be part of a governing coalition,” said Alex Conant, a onetime aide to Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who was once a Tea Party star. “Their opposition to Trump’s health care bill should surprise nobody who’s paid attention for the last six years. Even the world’s best negotiator can’t make a deal with someone who never compromises.”
But the Freedom Caucus has never been about compromise. In 2011, it picked a huge, costly fight over Planned Parenthood. In 2013, it orchestrated a government shutdown over funding for the health care law. Then, in its most striking move, it deposed Mr. Boehner in 2015. The common thread: It has continuously been an adversary of legislation itself.
But after years of opposing power — both in the White House, which was occupied by a Democrat, and in the leadership of their own party — the conservatives were offered a chance to negotiate directly with the president and his budget director, a former Freedom Caucus member, over the bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. The members pushed and pushed Mr. Trump to the far right edges of policy, just as they have done for years on other bills. But they still could not get to “yes,” and therefore became part owners of the expansive health law they were trying to undo.
Friday's painful rebuke is an ominous sign for President Donald Trump's agenda, from taxes to infrastructure to the budget. Looming in a few weeks is the need to agree on a bill to keep the government open. After the health care debacle, Trump told Republican leaders he's moving on.
The episode is a danger point for the relationship between Trump and Ryan, who had an awkward pairing during the campaign but worked in tandem on the GOP health measure.
"I like Speaker Ryan," Trump said. "I think Paul really worked hard."
Virtually every congressional Republican won election promising to repeal Obamacare. With a Republican in the White House, passage seemed almost guaranteed.
Ryan was steeped in the details, even at one point replicating for a nationwide cable news audience a detailed PowerPoint presentation he delivered to his members.
Earlier this month, he said flatly, "We'll have 218 (votes) when this thing comes to the floor, I can guarantee you that."
Ryan was thrust into the speaker's chair after the stunning 2015 resignation of John Boehner, R-Ohio, and a failed bid by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. At the time, Ryan held his dream job — chairman of the powerful, tax-writing Ways and Means Committee — but took the job as the last viable option to lead a fractured House GOP.
While Ryan eased comfortably into the job, he's not the schmoozer Boehner was, a key skill in delivering like-minded but reluctant lawmakers. He lacked the steel and seasoning of Democratic rival Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who delivered Obamacare in the first place — and that took months, not weeks.
Even before the bill went down, Pelosi was piling on, taunting Trump and, by implication, Ryan, for rushing the bill to the floor too early.
"You build your consensus in your caucus, and when you're ready, you set the date to bring it to the floor," Pelosi said. "Rookie's error, Donald Trump. You may be a great negotiator. Rookie's error for bringing this up on a day when clearly you're not ready."
Ryan entered the health care debate without the experience of having ever managed a situation of such magnitude.
"We were a 10-year opposition party where being against things was easy to do," a clearly disappointed Ryan said Friday. "And now, in three months' time, we've tried to go to a governing party, where we have to actually get ... people to agree with each other in how we do things."