Donald Trump doesn’t understand health care. Shouldn’t the press say so?

Trump is botching simple policy questions, but does anyone care?

Published May 5, 2017 7:18PM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This article originally appeared on Media Matters.

Interviewing President Donald Trump for Face The Nation, host John Dickerson recently tried to pin the president down on the details of the Republican health care bill that Trump was championing in his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The exercise did not go well because Trump clearly did not understand any of the policy details in the bill, dubbed the American Health Care Act (AHCA). For instance, Trump kept boasting that Americans with pre-existing conditions don’t have anything to worry about with the new Republican legislation. But that’s obviously not true. “In fact, it’s exactly the opposite,” Vox noted. “An amendment to the AHCA introduced this week would give states authority to let insurers charge sick people higher premiums.”

After a while, the Face The Nation back-and-forth started to resemble a Laurel and Hardy routine, as Dickerson and Trump talked past each other. The CBS host asked sensible questions and the president offered up garbled, borderline-unintelligible responses, often while making claims about the bill that were false.

Here’s an example from CBS' transcript, as Dickerson pressed Trump about pre-existing conditions:

John Dickerson: But has that been fixed?

Donald Trump: Totally fixed.

Dickerson: How?

Trump: How? We've made many changes to the bill. You know, this bill is —

Dickerson What kind though?

Trump:: — very much different than it was three weeks ago.

Dickerson Help us explain because there are people —

Trump: The bill —

Dickerson — out there wondering what kind of changes.

TRUMP: Let me explain. Let me explain it to you.

Dickerson: Okay.

For Dickerson, the interview was like wrestling Jell-O. And for any viewer with a basic understanding of Obamacare and how health care works in the United States, Trump’s responses were categorically nonsensical. So the curtain was successfully pulled back, right? Not quite.

Here’s how Trump’s interview was then reported in an article on “Trump Guarantees Coverage For People With Pre-Existing Conditions In Health Care Bill.”

That was a wildly misleading, Trump-friendly headline, because in fact, the AHCA “seems to weaken existing protections for people with pre-existing conditions, not strengthen them,” as PolitiFact explained.

During the interview, Dickerson made it abundantly clear that Trump didn’t know much about health care and that he knew even less about the bill he wanted Congress to pass. But the network glossed over all that unpleasantness and produced a report that focused on Trump’s promises, even though the GOP bill can’t possibly meet those promises.

That kind of whitewashing has become the media norm, as journalists quietly turn away from the stunning fact that while Trump is trying to reconfigure the U.S. health care economy, he doesn’t understand how it works or what the GOP bill will do.

In the wake of Thursday’s House vote to pass the AHCA, and prior to the pending debate that will unfold in the Senate, the way the press depicts Trump with regard to the health care push remains vital. To date, there’s lots of normalizing going on.

For example, here was a recent health care update from Reuters, just prior to the House vote: “President Donald Trump's effort to roll back Obamacare gained momentum on Wednesday as Republican leaders scheduled a vote in the House of Representatives on Thursday on newly revised legislation.”

Focusing heavily on process (the bill was gaining “traction”), Reuters emphasized that Trump was marshaling Republican forces to finally repeal and replace Obamacare. Left out by Reuters? Trump doesn’t know what’s in the Republican bill to replace Obamacare, and Trump is making wildly unfounded claims about the legislation. (See more examples of that look-away coverage here, here and here.)

Following Thursday’s vote, the coverage then quickly focused even more heavily on process and optics, as journalists touted Trump’s big “win,” even though the cost of the bill hasn’t yet been assessed by the Congressional Budget Office. (That's a task usually done before any votes are cast.) Nor has the bill yet been taken up by the more closely divided Senate. (Republican leadership has even indicated there will be no vote on the House version of the bill and that instead, Republicans in the Senate will draft their own version.) Omitted from the process coverage? Trump’s complete lack of understanding of the legislation.

Unfortunately, this week’s health care coverage represents the latest example of the Beltway press refusing to adjust its approach in order to accurately reflect the radical ways of Trump.

Obviously, presidents ought to be able to discuss policy, and it’s normal for reporters to quote presidents about policy. But if at some point there’s a collective realization among journalists who are familiar with the intricacies of different policy proposals — whether it’s taxation or immigration or federal spending — that the president has almost no grasp of the issue at hand, or of the legislation he’s trying to pass, isn’t it the responsibility of the press to speak up and say so — and to do so repeatedly?

From the libertarian Reason magazine (emphasis added):

It is a problem that Trump doesn't understand the bill his administration wants so desperately to pass. It means that Trump can't describe the bill with clarity or accuracy, and that as a result it's impossible to believe what he does say. It also means that Trump doesn't really know what makes the bill good or bad, and how to negotiate towards something better.

That’s a very accurate description of the current state of play. So how has that not been a major narrative for the media’s health care coverage this week?

Note that some are trying. Like CBS, Bloomberg also interviewed Trump and asked him about health care. And like with CBS, Trump also gave garbled answers and claimed the GOP bill would do things that it clearly will not.

And at least Bloomberg pointed that out (emphasis added):

President Donald Trump said Monday the Republican health-care bill being negotiated in Congress ultimately will protect Americans with pre-existing conditions as well as Obamacare does.

“I want it to be good for sick people. It’s not in its final form right now," he said during an Oval Office interview Monday with Bloomberg News. "It will be every bit as good on pre-existing conditions as Obamacare."

The latest version of the House GOP bill, which Republican leaders are trying to figure out whether they have the votes to pass this week, wouldn’t live up to that promise and would weaken those protections.

It’s true that we’ve seen some journalists, like Peter Suderman at Reason, pointedly highlighting Trump’s complete ignorance regarding health care. But that’s been opinion-based commentary. Because apparently if you’re going to relay the fact that the president of the United States doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that has to be your opinion. If you’re a reporter and a chronicler of fact, you’re not supposed to state that obvious finding and conclusion.

When presidents don’t understand hallmark bills that they support, that’s news.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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