New Trump attack on Obamacare leaves Dems wondering: Why now?

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
Obamacare supporters in front of the Supreme Court and Twitter logo. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, AP)

The announcement Monday night that the Department of Justice had shifted its position on the Affordable Care Act and would not defend any part of it in court drew a swift — and somewhat puzzled — response from leading Democrats.

The unexpected filing in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a challenge to the ACA — or Obamacare — is being heard, came right in the middle of the Trump administration’s victory lap over the conclusion of the special counsel investigation into the 2016 election. It left Democrats simultaneously outraged at the latest attack on health care and mystified that the administration would want to divert attention away from its good news with such a controversial action.

As the headline on the Washington Post op-ed page put it: The Trump administration just handed Democrats their best 2020 issue.

Democrats, even as they have been demanding the release of the full Mueller report, were mostly accepting as a fait accompli that the president would not face charges by the special counsel and were moving on to what they believe will be the big issue in the 2020 election.

On “New Day” on CNN Tuesday morning, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said, “I believe that the Mueller report has been done. It’s a chapter that’s closed. This administration opened a new chapter when it moved to invalidate the Affordable Care Act.”

As is usually the case nowadays, most of this reacting took place on Twitter.

Wrote Andy Slavitt, who was head of Medicare, Medicaid and the ACA in the Obama administration: “Trump just made the 2020 election all about pre-existing conditions. Again.”

In December, a U.S. district court judge in Texas, ruling on a challenge to the ACA by a number of Republican-led states, struck down the entire law as unconstitutional. The Justice Department, which had been arguing in the appeals court that portions of the law should stand, has now said it will no longer defend any part of it.

If that position prevails, millions of Americans who had been relying on the ACA for coverage would lose health insurance.

And Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., warned: “Yesterday the Trump DOJ launched a full fledged assault on every single part of the Affordable Care Act – the 30m who have insurance, the protections for preexisting conditions. EVERYTHING. And they’re hoping you will be so distracted by Mueller that you won’t notice or care.”

Many of the tweets quoted the president. Noah Bierman, the White House correspondent for the L.A. Times, wrote: “Trump, responding to question about the Justice Department’s move late Monday to overturn Obamacare: “The Republican Party will soon be known as the party of healthcare. Watch.”

But there was also lots of retweeting of Trump’s previous opinions on health care, particularly during the 2018 midterm elections when polls were showing that some provisions of the ACA were extremely popular, which led some Republicans to vow to preserve them. Hillary Clinton took to Twitter this morning to say, “Unsurprisingly, this was a lie,” linking to an October 2018 tweet from Trump that said, “Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not!”

Another notable thing about the timing of the DOJ memo is that it lands on the ninth anniversary of the signing of the ACA. House Democrats had already scheduled the rollout of legislation to strengthen the preexisting condition clause of the ACA, and that announcement was quickly recast as a return of fire against the administration.

“Democrats are introducing our new bill to #ProtectOurCare and lower health care costs for millions of Americans at 2:30 pm ET,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted.

A number of declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination also weighed in.

Kamala Harris: “I warned AG Barr in his confirmation hearing that the DOJs refusal to defend the ACA places millions of Americans at risk of losing their health insurance. Now, the DOJ under Barr is arguing the entire ACA is unconstitutional. This is reckless & puts American lives at risk.”

Amy Klobuchar: “This is outrageous and shows exactly where the President is coming from. Millions of Americans would lose their health care if this administration had their way.”

Pete Buttigieg: “If you benefit from the #ACA, it is now the official position of the White House to take away your health coverage, with no sign of a plan to help you if they win and you lose. We stand for the belief that all Americans should have the freedom that comes with good health care. American lives depend on this.”

And some candidates used the event as a chance not to defend the ACA, but to push for even broader policies of their own.

Beto O'Rourke: “We will defend the ACA. We will protect the care of those whose lives depend upon it. And we will get universal, guaranteed, high-quality health care for every woman, every man, every child in this country.”

Bernie Sanders: “Over 30,000 Americans could die every single year if Trump gets his way and destroys the Affordable Care Act. Our job is to fight back against his efforts to take health care away from millions of people. We must make health care a right through Medicare for All."

Republicans, in contrast, were relatively quiet. The best quote of the day, however, arguably came from an unnamed Republican. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted that she had “asked an administration official why the ACA suit would be filed now, on heels of Trump’s best two days in two years. Official deadpanned: ‘Too much positive news. We needed to change the subject.’”

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