WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s attack on health care projections this week is the latest episode in an escalating war on math that began on Inauguration Day.
The Trump presidency began as a battle with the press about crowd sizes at his inauguration. The president recently directed his spokesman to assert — to laughter in the press room — that jobs numbers had been “phony” until the moment he took office. And the administration continues to deepen a pattern of cherry-picking data that supports its arguments while dismissing other numbers, kind of an arithmetical counterpart to attempts to delegitimize unfavorable reporting against it as “fake news.”
"CBO coverage estimates have been consistently wrong,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a briefing Tuesday afternoon, before praising another part of the same report: a projected reduction in the national deficit.
“They're pretty good at dollars, not as good at people,” Spicer said, explaining why the deficit numbers were accurate but the coverage estimates were not.
Another White House official again stressed that the Congressional Budget Office has been wrong before on health care. “They’re the budget office, they’re not the coverage office, and they’ve gotten coverage wrong since day one.”
The CBO released its evaluation Monday evening of a House bill to replace Obamacare — a top priority for Republicans — that showed there would be 24 million more uninsured people by 2026 and that the legislation, if enacted, would reduce the deficit by $337 billion.
The war-on-numbers strategy can be useful in shaping the public’s views. But it has not, so far, swayed lawmakers.
“We like the CBO when they agree with us. When they don’t, they’re a bunch of losers,” said South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday.
“[The White House] can say the sky is fucking black,” said a source close to the administration, “but these House guys know what the CBO score means.”
Before the report had even been released, Spicer, along with cabinet officials, repeatedly dismissed the upcoming projections.
“The only point is to make sure that people understand if you’re looking to get an accurate, bull’s-eye prediction, the CBO was off by more than half the last time,” Spicer said on Monday, adding that Obamacare did not insure as many people as the CBO had projected.
"If the CBO was right about Obamacare to begin with, there'd be 8 million more people on Obamacare today than there actually are," Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. "So, I love the folks at the CBO; they work really hard. They do. Sometimes we ask them to do stuff that they're not capable of doing."
But the White House is not against the CBO numbers just because they don’t help them in getting support for the bill, said a senior administration official. "I do think it was appropriate for us to remind audiences that CBO can be wrong,” the official said, adding that “their estimates for those being impacted were grossly inaccurate.”
The official also rejected a Politico story that cites an administration document showing an even higher number of uninsured under the bill. “Nobody here even knows what that document really is,” the official said.
Disputing numbers when they don’t support the administration isn’t unique to the Trump presidency, but the reliance on it is unlike what past presidents and their aides have done. The senior administration official, however, contested the notion that the Trump administration routinely rejects widely accepted numerical claims.
“I don't think it's fair to generalize on this,” the official said, stressing that the messaging on the CBO was different because it has a “history of inaccurate estimates.”
A television surrogate for the campaign said the attacks on the CBO make sense, but Trump trying to have it both ways won’t work in the long run.
“Trump has been on record defending CBO scores when they would help him; I don’t know how you square that,” the source said. “I would have a hard time in Spicer’s shoes.”
With respect to the jobs numbers, the surrogate laughed: “I would concede to you the president’s kind of caught there because we got a report that we loved.”
But American confidence in government institutions is so low, the strategy makes sense, said another source who has been in discussions with the White House on legislative issues. "I don't think many of the voters believe these numbers anyway,” the source said. “The office has the word ‘congressional’ before it. It's a good talking point. But it’s the same when the numbers are for you. Voters still don’t believe them.”
A different Republican in contact with the administration said the tradition in government has been that there are certain statistics and figures that are a “gold standard not to be refuted, but now there’s actually such distrust in the ethics of government and the ability to get things right that’s it’s easy to discount serious work on any issue.”
Before, the source said, it was difficult to refute something like the CBO score, but now it is discounted. “It’s against a bureaucratic system that has proven to be ineffective,” the source continued. “We never did that before — it used to be ‘We are the government.’ Now it’s pretty much ‘We are the White House and you are the bureaucracy.”
A White House official said it is not the administration’s strategy to undermine institutions.
“This is not a strategy to attack institutions; the problem is that things tend to be oversimplified — whether it’s a news story that doesn’t get it right or a report that doesn’t paint the full picture, we’re going to attempt to set the record straight,” the official said, adding that sometimes even Republicans don’t understand that, for example, all of Obamacare can’t be repealed through the reconciliation process.
But a former House leadership aide called the administration’s response “sloppy,” saying, "attacking the CBO is not the way to go.”
"They knew those quotes with Republicans supporting the CBO director were out there,” the aide said. "Then you have Tom Price going on TV and saying no one will lose coverage, and other people saying the opposite.
"Republicans need to do two things: 1) Acknowledge they are not in a race for coverage — they are not going to win that — but they are about giving choice and freedom to people to find better plans. 2) Stop pretending that the House bill is the be-all and the end-all.”
Jeffrey Lord, a Trump booster and CNN contributor who served as a Reagan official, said there is a long-standing tradition of swiping credit for good numbers from a previous president, arguing that Bill Clinton did it as numbers began to perk up at the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency before Clinton had even been sworn in. But he said the flip side of that was in 1982, when the recession continued before Reagan’s tax and budget package had been passed and things began to improve.
“So you get the blame, and to the extent there is anything that doesn’t work or is seen as not working, Donald Trump will be getting the blame for it,” he said. “But I think it’s standard fare, when the numbers are going up, to go out there and claim credit.”
Kate Nocera contributed reporting.