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Political Fight Over Condolence Calls, Health Bill Addresses 'Bailout' Concerns


President Trump did one of the most sensitive things required of a commander in chief on Tuesday. He called the widow of an American soldier recently killed in Niger to offer his condolences.


FREDERICA WILSON: Well, I didn't hear the whole phone call, but I did hear him say, I'm sure he knew what he was signing up for and - but it still hurts.

GREENE: That is Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, talking about what she says Trump said in that phone call. She overheard the call and went on CNN, where she said the president's comments were insensitive. Now President Trump says that she fabricated that story. And this back-and-forth has now escalated into a multiday controversy. NPR's Tamara Keith is with us to talk about it.

Hey there, Tam.


GREENE: So where does this back-and-forth stand now?

KEITH: Well, Sergeant La David Johnson's mother has weighed in and said that that is, in fact, what the president said, that it was taken as insensitive by those who were in the car listening to the phone call that President Trump had with Johnson's widow, Myeshia Johnson. The White House is saying, though, that this is the press and Congresswoman Wilson politicizing something that shouldn't be politicized.

And from there, you now have journalists calling all of the Gold Star families who have had someone die in service this year - die in action this year, to find out how their interactions with President Trump have gone. And it's been sort of a mixed bag. Some have gotten letters. Some have gotten calls. One man told The Washington Post that the president promised to send him a check for $25,000.

GREENE: A check?

KEITH: A check. And then yesterday, the White House said the check was in the mail.

GREENE: OK. Well, that - I mean, that's one response from the White House, I guess, this family is saying. Can we say, Tam, that Trump sort of brought this upon himself? He didn't comment on the deaths of these four American soldiers in Niger until a reporter specifically asked about this, right?

KEITH: That's right. Yeah. It's really important to remember how this all started. President Trump tweets about just about everything, comments on all kinds of random stuff.


KEITH: But he was uncharacteristically silent about the death of these four Green Berets. The White House argues they didn't have a complete information packet from the Defense Department about these people. And so the president didn't send letters or didn't speak out sooner - that Sarah Sanders, the spokesperson, did go to the podium and talk about the loss a couple of times.

But the president was asked about his silence on Monday during this wide-ranging press conference. And he said something sort of in defense of himself that turned this into the multiday, rolling, feuding-fighting, sort of Trump-type thing that happens with a lot of stuff where he said, you know, I like to make calls but other presidents haven't. And that really turned this into something very different and something that, in some ways, was focused on President Trump more than on the families of the fallen.

GREENE: And we saw former aides for two other presidents, like President Obama, coming and trying to clarify the record on what presidents have done in situations like this.

KEITH: Including with some very colorful language.

GREENE: Yeah. So all of this is happening as we have this bipartisan deal on health care that would, in theory, stabilize the insurance markets. It's going to be introduced in Congress, this outbreak of bipartisanship we're seeing (laughter). You have a Republican senator, Lamar Alexander, a Democrat, Patty Murray. The president - it seemed like he might be against this, then kind of looked like he was for it and now, as of today, seems against it. Or where do things stand?

KEITH: That is basically where it seems to stand...



KEITH: ...That he is against it but could be for it. But Senator Alexander said that - when, yesterday, President Trump tweeted negatively about it, that he had spoken to him just right before that tweet and they had had a positive conversation. So it wasn't clear. Press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about the White House position on the bill yesterday, and this is what she said.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look. We've said all along that we want something that doesn't just bail out the insurance companies but actually provides relief for all Americans. And this bill doesn't address that fact.

KEITH: And for lawmakers like Alexander who do want this legislation, the key to winning the president's support at least will probably be convincing the president that this isn't a bailout as the president, at the moment, seems mighty convinced it is.

GREENE: Well, tell me what is in this bill before we talk about whether or not it's a bailout - or whether it's a bailout or not.

KEITH: Well - so it restores funding for these cost-sharing reduction payments that President Trump had halted and provides funding for that through 2019. It also requires the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been skimping on outreach and enrollment assistance, to actually spend money on encouraging people to buy insurance. And it includes some stuff that Republicans want, like making it easier for states to get waivers to set up things like high-risk pools and also lifts the age cap on people buying catastrophic coverage plans. These are more basic and lower-cost plans that previously, under the Affordable Care Act, only people under 30 could buy.

GREENE: So there's a lot in here. This is not just about these subsidies. I mean, how - where does this bill go? I mean, is it dead on arrival because of what we're hearing from the White House or not necessarily?

KEITH: Not necessarily, but it has a tough road ahead. Senators Alexander and Murray introduce it today. They're hoping to have 10 Republican and 10 Democratic co-sponsors. We'll see whether they do. And the Senate might be easier than the House. There's not a lot of interest coming out of the House at all.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Tamara Keith talking to us about a lot going on at the White House, including the debate over this bipartisan health care bill that we're expecting to be introduced in Congress today.

Tam, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.