On its victory lap, the Trump administration moves to strip millions of healthcare

In an extraordinary step, the justice department has lent its support to a ruling that would abolish the Affordable Care Act.

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There’s a sensible enough argument to be made that the left should be pleased with the outcome of the Mueller inquiry into Russian election interference. The president and his Republican allies have seized on Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the report as vindication that the inquiry was a waste of time all along (not true) and are portraying it as a complete exoneration of Donald Trump (also really not true).

Yet Americans of all political persuasions should probably feel glad that their president, for all his flaws, is unlikely a Russian agent. There may also be reason to feel relieved that the chances of impeachment have diminished, if only because impeachment would widen America’s dangerous partisan divides and stoke the politics of resentment and hatred that Trump has so effectively weaponised.

The pessimistic response, however, is to consider how the Trump administration is likely to act now that they no longer have the threat of a damning Russia investigation looming over them. So far, things really aren’t looking good.

On 25 March, just one day after Barr made public his summary of Mueller’s findings, the Justice Department took the extraordinary step of supporting a federal judge ruling that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional and should be abolished in its entirety.

In a letter sent to the 5th District Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which is considering the case, three justice department lawyers said that they believed the court should uphold the December 2018 ruling by Texan Judge Reed O’Connor, which argued that every provision of Obamacare is invalid.

The suit is likely to rise up to the US Supreme Court. Should Obamacare be struck down, the repercussions will be vast and devastating. Tens of millions of Americans will lose their health insurance, including those who are dependent on Medicare and people with pre-existing medical conditions, and a whole array of other public health policies will be reversed, including protections for breastfeeding mothers and the requirement that chain restaurants provide nutritional information on their menus. Matt Eyles, the president and chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans told the New York Times that the move “puts coverage at risk for more than 100 million Americans”.

The intervention by Barr’s Justice Department marks a decisive break from the longstanding political tradition that the executive branch upholds existing statutes, and marks the new attorney general as even more radical than his ultra-conservative predecessor, Jeff Sessions. Sessions declined to defend the Affordable Care Act against legal challenge, which was unusual. Barr is actively supporting its appeal, which is wildly irresponsible and frankly dangerous.

Considered alongside his decision, taken within 48 hours of receiving Mueller’s report, to conclude that Trump did not obstruct justice – a conclusion that Mueller declined to make, despite spending 22 months poring over the evidence, Barr is rapidly marking himself out as a reckless ideologue.

At the same time, the episode demonstrates the extent to which access to healthcare has become a major, and toxic, dividing line between the two parties. While a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls have come out in favour of Medicare-for-all, the Republicans have proved themselves so hell-bent on dismantling Obamacare that they would do so without considering a workable alternative, one that would not put the health of tens of millions of Americans at risk.

Polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that overall support for the Affordable Care Act remains deeply divided along party lines: around 4 in 5 Democrats are in favour of the act, while around 4 in 5 Republicans oppose it.

When you start to break things down into smaller healthcare issues, however, there are broader areas of agreement. Notably, more than half of Republicans, as well as almost 90 per cent of Democrats, say they support insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions – a protection that was only introduced under the Affordable Care Act. Similarly, while Republicans are less likely than Democrats to be concerned about increasing overall healthcare coverage, many share similar worries over the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs.

The biggest worry, undoubtedly, is that if the Trump administration gets its way, it will succeed in denying millions of vulnerable Americans access to healthcare, but Republicans should take note that the president’s post-Mueller Inquiry victory lap could bulldoze over their healthcare concerns, too.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.