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Week In Politics: Trump's Overseas Trip, CBO Scores Health Care Bill


To talk more about this and the rest of the week in politics is Reihan Salam of the National Review and Slate speaking to us from New York. Hey there, Reihan.


CORNISH: And Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald. She joins us here in studio. Hi there, Kimberly.


CORNISH: So as we heard, this whirlwind trip by the president is winding down. And I'd just like to essentially get the reaction from both of you as to a moment that stood out because this was not a week where people were reporting every day as though there was a crisis or, like, a huge debacle of some kind. Reihan, can I start with you?

SALAM: Well, there was a big contrast between his address in Saudi Arabia in which he laid out what you might describe as the Trump doctrine, the idea that we are not going to interfere in your domestic internal affairs but we do expect you to work with us constructively on fighting terrorism. And that's a big change from previous American presidents who had rather a lot to say about how we feel about the internal affairs of other countries, whether or not they're abiding by human rights and what have you. So I thought that that was a distinctive and telling moment. It was an area where Trump was both coherent but also, to folks who really care about the United States as a kind of avatar of liberal freedoms in the world, somewhat disconcerting.

CORNISH: Kimberly, for you?

ATKINS: I think when he was in Brussels and giving his speech to NATO where he became - it became sort of a tale of two Trumps. He had come off of that address to Muslim leaders and with a very conciliatory tone, a very different tone than he took...

CORNISH: Right. Like, I'm not going to lecture you...

ATKINS: Right.

CORNISH: ...But guess what, Europe?

ATKINS: Right. Right. But then he gets to Europe and he becomes the nationalistic America first guy that we recalled from the campaign trail, scolding NATO partners about not paying their fair share and costing U.S. taxpayers too much money, which isn't exactly how it works. But sort of gave this strong America first approach sort of presence in Brussels right down to, you know, shoving the prime minister of Montenegro to get to the front of a photo op. And so it's sort of the two different sides of Donald Trump we saw on this trip as bookends.

CORNISH: Do we read too much into those little moments, like the handshake memes or the shoving? Like, is it we're so desperate to parse our understanding of Trump?

ATKINS: Well, I think that's the point. I think we have a lot of European leaders. This is his first big multilateral meeting as president. And a lot of these leaders were trying to size him up to figure it out. So we had those moments like President Macron with this handshake that sort of doubled as an arm wrestling contest and things like that just as these leaders are trying to figure him out, meet him and figure out how to deal with him moving forward.

SALAM: I'd say from the big picture my sense is that in a way, both of these Trumps are America first Trumps. The issue is that when he looks to the Saudis, when he looks to the Gulf states, you know, what he's essentially saying is that I need these guys to cooperate to accomplish some of my own objectives. And when he looks to NATO allies in Europe he sees them a bit differently.

He sees them as liabilities more than as countries that can actually strengthen America's reach. And I think that that's one area where he is very much at odds with a kind of bipartisan foreign policy consensus. He emphasizes this notion that our European allies are free riders that are really just entangling us, limiting us from doing some of the things we want to do.

CORNISH: We're going to dig in more on that elsewhere in the program. So I want to move on to some domestic news because back here in the U.S., the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office examined the Republicans' health care bill and said that it might reduce the deficit by $119 billion over 10 years, but it will also leave 23 million more people uninsured by 2026 than if Obamacare had stayed in place. Here's some reaction to that from Iowa Republican Steve King.


STEVE KING: Any of us that have any experience, we don't trust the CBO score. And I think we're in a zone now where we have to go forward and do what's right.

CORNISH: Kimberly, they're in the zone. So does this CBO report matter?

ATKINS: Well, it matters in terms of it's bad news for Republicans overall because this is the news that America is hearing. The bill that this report scored is dead on arrival. It's the House-passed bill. Senate Republicans have already made clear that they're going to start from scratch, that they are not going to work off of this bill. So it's dead. But at the same time, this is yet another message to Americans saying, look, we may cut the deficit and lower taxes for some in the upper income bracket, but millions of people are going to find it harder to get coverage on this bill.

CORNISH: Reihan, you've written that the most important thing to understand about the politics here is that House Republicans would rather blame Senate Republicans for failing to repeal and replace than taking that blame themselves.

SALAM: That's certainly one of the dynamics at work here. So the real concern was that the CBO might come out and say that this legislation, this bill is no longer deficit-improving. Had that happened, then you literally would have had to get House Republicans - you would have had to corral them all over again to pass another bill, which would have been very, very difficult. But what we see here is that as long as it shows that it's a deficit-improving you can kick it over to the Senate and the Senate can put together its own legislation, which is likely to look very, very different from this particular legislation.

So the funny thing is that when we hear this news, when we hear about, you know, what's coming out of the CBO, understandably a lot of people are very anxious that, you know, this might be something that's going to actually become law. But in practice, what they were really trying to do is just reconcile some of the clashes and disagreements within the Republican caucus just enough to hand it over as though you're handing over a baton in a relay race. And now the really hard work is going to have to be done by Senate Republicans. Whether they can put together something that is going to be broadly acceptable to the American public, you know, is a tough question to answer.

But what we do know is that Republican senators answer to different, bigger, broader constituencies. There are Republican senators representing states that embrace the Medicaid expansion. And so they have very different political incentives at work. So the legislation we're likely to see come out of the Senate is definitely going to be quite, quite different, as Kimberly suggests.

CORNISH: Finally, people were watching the Montana special election where Republican Greg Gianforte used part of his victory speech to apologize after he was charged with assaulting a news reporter. I don't know if you guys want to tackle that in our last minute and a half, but are we reading too much into these special elections in terms of how they forecast 2018? Kimberly?

ATKINS: I think we definitely are. Look, special elections - any congressional election, but special elections particularly reflect the - what's happening on the ground in that district and the candidates who are on the ballot. I mean, if you look back in Massachusetts, say, when Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy's seat there was this idea that this - the Tea Party movement had made it all the way to Massachusetts. Not true. We had a terrible Democratic candidate who campaigned awfully. Scott Brown won and two years later was quickly replaced by Elizabeth Warren. I think we have to wait till 2018. I know we're very anxious to see what the Trump effect is, but I'm not sure that this is evidence of that.

CORNISH: Reihan, you?

SALAM: I think it could be an indication of something. So when we're looking at the forthcoming special election in Georgia, that could be a sign that kind of upper-middle income, college-educated congressional districts are moving to Democrats. This district - well, you know, Greg Gianforte was a very flawed candidate. He was a candidate who was battered by Democrats when he ran statewide as a gubernatorial candidate just a little while ago as a carpetbagger, as a kind of heartless businessman. So what it really tells us is that, you know, when you're going to run in a special election you need someone who can be self-funding or has access to a ton of people who can write him big checks. And that narrows the universe of potential candidates. And that's a problem for Republicans and Democrats alike.

CORNISH: That's Reihan Salam of the National Review and Slate and Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald. Thank you both.

SALAM: Thank you.

ATKINS: Pleasure to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE HENDERSON'S "BEHOLD THE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.