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How Trump Often Finds A Way To Say He Is Still Fighting When Faced With Defeat


President Trump's retreat on the citizenship census question is part of a larger pattern that's played out throughout his presidency. When faced with what looks to everyone like defeat, he often finds a way to say he is still fighting even if it isn't really clear that he is. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has watched this over time and joins us here in the studio. Hey, Tam.


SHAPIRO: How did the way President Trump portrayed his position on the census fit in with this pattern?

KEITH: You know, from his business bankruptcies to the failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Trump always declares victory in the face of defeat. This is something he has done again and again, both in his personal life and now in his presidency. And the health care vote in 2017 is a great example of that. Republicans in the Congress tried to pass a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They failed. President Trump came out and said, well, hey, you know, maybe it's not such a bad thing after all.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Perhaps the best thing that could happen is exactly what happened today because we'll end up with a truly great health care bill in the future after this mess known as Obamacare explodes.

KEITH: Now, he still regularly complains about the late Senator John McCain and his dramatic vote - no - on the Obamacare repeal. But he hasn't given up on it entirely. And another example of this is the government shutdown earlier this year over his effort to get funding from Congress to build the wall. He eventually backed down, and the government reopened. And then President Trump declared a state of emergency to build the wall.

SHAPIRO: But some of these fights like the wall, the Affordable Care Act, have not really ever gone away. I mean, does he ever admit defeat?

KEITH: No, he does not admit defeat. And he also doesn't really ever stop trying. So take the health care bill. Congressional Republicans, after that failure, went on to pass a big tax bill. And part of that bill got rid of the penalty for not having health insurance. That functionally eliminated the individual mandate.

Well, just this week, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing a challenge to the Affordable Care Act based on the idea that without that individual mandate penalty, the Affordable Care Act is no longer constitutional. And in a big break with past practice, President Trump actually pushed for the Justice Department to stop defending the Affordable Care Act as constitutional. We don't know how that case is going to work out, but clearly the president is still pushing on that.

And on the wall, although there have been challenges to President Trump's emergency declaration earlier this year because he was going around Congress to get money to build the wall, in fact, in at least some sections, wall construction is starting to happen. Now, it's not what he promised. It's not sea to shining sea. It's not cement. It's actually bollard fencing. Some of it is replacing fence that was there already. But he can tell his supporters that he is building the wall.

SHAPIRO: Wouldn't most other presidents just move on?

KEITH: Most other presidents have moved on. So Bill Clinton failed on health care in 1993, and he moved on. George W. Bush failed on Social Security. President Obama failed on immigration, climate legislation, gun control. They all moved on to areas where they thought that they could notch some wins.

But President Trump is simply different. And part of that is related to his relationship with his base, the fact that he isn't really trying to expand beyond his base. And so there is value for him in showing that he is fighting. Showing that is almost more important than succeeding. So while other presidents would not want to draw attention to their failures or near misses or half-misses, President Trump just keeps talking about these things.

SHAPIRO: As we saw today in the White House Rose Garden. That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Thank you very much.

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.