LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On the precipice of the meatiest legislative fight of his young presidency, Donald Trump is increasingly talking about health care like the vegetables of his agenda — the thing he must begrudgingly finish in order to get to what he really wants: tax cuts, trade deals and infrastructure.
At a rally here in Louisville, Trump time and again framed the passage of a repeal and replacement plan for President Obama’s namesake health care law as a necessary step to achieve the rest of his ambitious agenda.
“We want a very big tax cut,” Trump said, “but we cannot do that until we keep our promise to repeal and replace the disaster known as Obamacare.”
The first big test for health care comes Thursday when the House has scheduled a floor vote. But on Monday, at a rally in the state of a senator, Rand Paul, who has been an outspoken skeptic of his health care proposal, Trump barely touched on the health care bill for the first 30 minutes of his speech. And when he did, he suggested it was the province of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was in the crowd.
“Mitch, hey Mitch are we going to be okay?” he said. “Good, thanks Mitch.”
Trump was on the ground in Kentucky for almost two hours but it was enough to boost his spirits after a day of swirling headlines in the nation’s capital about Russia, FBI investigations and his unfounded allegations of Obama-ordered wire-tapping. Fresh polls showed new lows for his approval rating, but inside the Louisville arena where attendees did the wave, Trump’s favorability was somewhere near 100 percent.
“We’re in the heartland of America and there is no place I would rather be than here with you tonight,” Trump said.
He talked about trade (“Oh, I’m looking forward to these trade deals”). He talked about manufacturing and jobs (“You see them coming back”). He talked about cutting taxes (“Truly one of my favorite things”). He talked about North Korea. (“What’s happening there is disgraceful and not smart, not smart at all”).
Eventually, he got to health care.
Trump’s seeming disinterest in some ways mirrors that of his chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who has been more impassioned about the same nationalistic agenda that Trump has sounded most excited about: trade, taxes, manufacturing and an “America First” foreign policy.
On Monday, Trump brought two members of the Kentucky congressional delegation on Air Force One with him, Reps. Andy Barr and James Comer, and proclaimed them both yes votes at his rally. He also gave a veiled shout-out to Rand Paul, who has lampooned the Trump-backed health care bill as “Obamacare lite” and urged his House counterparts to block the legislation.
“I happen to like a lot Senator Rand Paul. I do. I do. I like him. Good. He’s a good guy. And I look forward to working with him so that we can get this bill passed in some form,” Trump said of health care. “So that we can pass massive tax reform which we can’t do until this happens.”
“So we gotta get this done before we can do the other,” Trump went on. “In other words, we have to know what this is before we can do the big tax cuts. We got to get it done for a lot of reasons but that’s one of them.”
The House vote still hangs in the balance amid a flurry of changes on Monday night and on Tuesday the president will make the trek to Capitol Hill to rally House Republicans to the cause. But Trump acknowledged that Thursday’s vote is just the start of a long process that he sounded ready to be done with.
“Remember,” he said in a bit of a sing-song voice, “we’re gonna negotiate and it’s gonna go to the Senate, and back and forth, the end result is going to be wonderful and it’s going to work great.”
The rally was not the first-time Trump signaled his disinterest in health care compared to tax cuts or cutting trade deals. Last week in Nashville, Trump said, “I want to cut the hell out of taxes but before I can do that — I would have loved to have put it first, to be honest.”
But it is health care that is next on the docket as the White House scrambles to ensure it is not a train wreck that could derail the rest of Trump’s plans.
“Thursday is our chance to end Obamacare and the Obamacare catastrophe and begin delivering the our reforms our people deserve,” as Trump said Monday night. “Big thing.”
“Then we get the tax cuts.”