WH dispatches aide after pro-Trump groups MIA on health care

AP News
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Posted: Mar 30, 2017 3:51 PM
WH dispatches aide after pro-Trump groups MIA on health care

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is so troubled by the failure of outside groups to promote the health care plan backed by President Donald Trump that a senior aide is being dispatched to rectify the situation.

Katie Walsh, a longtime top lieutenant to chief of staff Reince Priebus, is leaving the administration to join the nonprofit group America First Policies.

It's one of three separate nonprofits stocked with former Trump advisers that say they want to promote the president's agenda. Yet all were noticeably absent during the heated battle over Trump's first legislative agenda item, repealing and replacing the nation's health care law. The proposal was pronounced dead on Friday.

"It was abundantly clear that we didn't have air cover when it came to calls coming into lawmakers," Priebus said. "No one can fix this problem better than Katie."

No one else is joining Walsh in leaving the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer said.

Walsh, White House deputy chief of staff, is joining America First Policies as a senior strategist. She's a longtime political operative and was among many in the Trump administration who noticed with irritation that pro-Trump groups weren't engaged in the fight over health care. She decided over the weekend that she could better help Trump on the outside and said she was "excited" to continue pressing his agenda.

The White House is not allowed to direct the outside groups on what to do; those groups typically use public statements by the president and others to determine how to use their resources.

"Katie Walsh was instrumental in the victory in November," said senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. "There is no one better suited to fulfill this role than Katie."

The health care bill's conservative opponents benefited from a well-funded echo chamber of political and policy groups to drive home their message with voters. For example, Americans for Prosperity, part of a conservative network backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, vowed to spend more than $1 million fighting any lawmakers who would vote for it.

Lack of Republican buy-in ultimately doomed the bill.

"The opposition was very well-organized," said Republican strategist Alex Conant. "The debate was over before the proponents got going."

But the hesitation started in the White House.

House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled the bill in February to repeal and replace the Obama-era health care law, and although Trump said he supported it, he did not aggressively sell it until the final few days before the vote was scheduled. When Ryan realized Friday that the bill would fail, he pulled it without a vote.

Leaders for some of the Trump groups said they viewed backing the legislation as a problem for Congress, not the White House.

"I guess I'm just not sure what the expectation was," said Katrina Pierson, spokeswoman for America First Policies. "This was the first attempt at health care by the Republican leadership, and it did not originate in the White House. If it's not originating in the White House, it's not our fight, it's their fight."

While America First Policies, which its leaders said had raised some $25 million already, spent next to nothing on the health care debate, Pierson noted she did television interviews promoting the bill. The group also tweeted about health care and did a small digital buy on the topic. The Trump campaign's data and digital director Brad Parscale founded the group.

The head of another pro-Trump group, Great America Alliance, said lawmakers' views on the health care were shifting too quickly to put together a successful pressure campaign.

"We try to augment the lead of the White House, as we have done on his reform agenda items," Eric Beach said. "There just was not as much clarity for us on which House members were supportive of the health care bill and which were not."

Trump advisers Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich are involved in that group, which Beach says has spent about $4 million since the president was inaugurated (just not on health care).

The leader of a third group, Making America Great, said the group was too new to jump into health care. David Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager for Trump, said he began activating and raising money for Making America Great only a few weeks ago.

"By the time we decided to do this, health care was well down the road," Bossie said. However, Republican megadonor and Trump supporter Rebekah Mercer registered paperwork for the group in December. It is funded partly by her, as well as Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and others.

The panoply of outside groups competing for primacy is reminiscent of the sometimes problematic internal factions at the White House itself, though the groups' leaders say there's plenty of room for everyone. Bossie and Parscale both were spotted in the White House on Thursday as the Walsh move was being announced.

This week, Making America Great began spending more than $1 million on an ad that is to air in 10 states with Democratic senators. It resembles a public relations campaign, with a drum corps sound track and images of the president's rallies overlaid with text such as, "Results not common in Washington, D.C."

The spot, first reported by Bloomberg News, notes job growth, the rollback of regulations, greenlighting of a pipeline and undoing of an international trade deal before concluding, "And it's only just begun."

There's no mention of health care.

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