The White House said it was acting on the recommendation of the Justice Department - that it was canceling illegal federal subsidies that helped sustain the Affordable Care Act. President Donald Trump said what he was doing would hurt the insurance companies only: “That’s not going to people; that’s making insurance companies rich,” he said, adding: “That money is going to insurance companies to prop up their stock price.”
But former top Trump White House aide Stephen Bannon told a very different tale this weekend. And it will confirm what every opponent of the move already suspected: that Trump was trying to cause Obamacare to fail.
In the midst of playing up Trump’s accomplishments Saturday at the “Values Voters Summit” in Washington, Bannon turned to Trump’s controversial Obamacare executive order the day before.
“Then you had Obamacare,” Bannon said. Trump is “not gonna make the [cost-sharing reduction] payments. Gonna blow that thing up. Gonna blow those exchanges up, right?”
Trump’s decision to cancel about $7 billion in annual federal payments to subsidize the policies of low-income Americans will clearly test the resilience of the already-strained Obamacare marketplaces. Whether that was the intention is for all of us to speculate upon. At the very least, it seems to be a perhaps-intentional side effect for a president who ran hard against the Affordable Care Act and has lashed out at the Republicans who were unable to repeal and replace the law.
Less convenient for Trump, of course, is the possibility that voters will punish him for hurting the most vulnerable Americans for purely political reasons - an eventuality of which I’m more skeptical than many critics of Trump’s move.
But the idea that this was a craven political move to actually cause Obamacare to fail - rather than a move just abiding by the law and/or that only hurt insurance companies - is completely confirmed by Bannon’s words.
I’m not sure Bannon didn’t intend to make that contradictory implication - no matter how unhelpful it might seem to his former boss. Bannon, after all, no longer works for Trump, which means anything he says carries with it the kind of plausible deniability for which the White House has already shown a huge affinity. Bannon can tell the GOP base that Trump just “blew up” Obamacare, and it’s not clear that this is a sanctioned message from the White House.
But if the Affordable Care Act does implode, and especially if Congress doesn’t pass something to help stabilize it, Bannon’s comments would seem to complicate things for Trump. Here we have one of the president’s top allies promoting the idea that Trump just acted deliberately to undermine the insurance policies that many poor Americans have come to rely upon.
However you feel about the law, that’s a pretty brazenly dangerous way of doing business. And even if you think that was just acting according to the law, it completely flies in the face of Trump’s pledge that this would hurt insurers rather than regular people. If those marketplaces do indeed “blow up,” real people’s lives will be affected - not just the insurers. Trump himself has suggested that won’t be the case, but Bannon clearly disagrees.
It at the very least behooves the administration to try to square those versions of events. If Bannon is a rogue actor and they don’t agree with his assessment of how this will affect Americans relying on Obamacare policies, by all means say that. But if this wouldn’t, in fact, “blow up” Obamacare, then the White House should explain why Bannon is wrong.
Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for The Fix.