Trump Uses Health Care Announcement to Brand Democrats as Socialists

ORLANDO, Fla. — President Trump on Thursday delivered a campaign-style speech to an audience of elderly voters, pitching a new executive order that aims to improve private Medicare plans as the responsible alternative to the “Medicare for all” policies supported by some of his Democratic political opponents.

“Standing in solidarity with our nation’s seniors, I declare once again that America will never be a socialist country,” Mr. Trump told a crowd at the Villages in Florida, the country’s largest retirement community, where the population is overwhelmingly white and conservative and where many residents are veterans.

“Democrat health care proposals would put everyone into a single socialist government program” and end private insurance for all Americans, Mr. Trump told the supportive crowd.

While the Medicare for All Act proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont would indeed cover all Americans under a single national health insurance program, most of the other Democratic presidential candidates want to give people the option of buying into Medicare, or a similar “public option,” but do not require it.

[Medicare for All? For More? Here’s How Medicare Works.]

That did not stop Mr. Trump from pitching himself in a critical swing state as the bulwark against a raid on health care benefits that members of his audience rely on. “As long as I’m president, no one will lay a hand on your Medicare benefits,” Mr. Trump said, adding that “I will never allow these politicians to steal your health care and give it away to illegal immigrants.”

Nearly all the Democratic candidates have said they support granting government health coverage to undocumented immigrants. At a debate in June, the idea received a unanimous show of hands in support.

But while Mr. Trump’s speech suggested that the Democratic proposals for expanding coverage put retirees’ access to health care in grave danger, the plans would not actually diminish their benefits. The Sanders plan, for example, would eliminate Medicare but provide more benefits for all Americans, including the elderly, than the program currently offers. It would have lower out-of-pocket costs compared with Medicare, though it would increase taxes.

Mr. Trump’s speech, delivered from behind a lectern with a presidential seal, was billed as an official White House event and his travel was not paid for by his campaign. But it was almost indistinguishable in much of its content from the remarks Mr. Trump delivers at his “Make America Great Again” rallies.

Mr. Trump called the Democratic presidential field a bunch of “maniacs” and noted that Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whom he referred to by the pejorative nickname Pocahontas, “came up from the ashes.” He noted that he would have to knock her out of the running again “because I don’t see sleepy Joe Biden making it.”

Mr. Trump said his victory in the 2020 election was critical to preventing the country from being hijacked by the “radical left,” which he said was “consumed by rage and radicalism and insatiable lust.” And he said that House Democrats had begun impeachment proceedings because “they know they can’t beat us fairly.”

Mr. Trump’s advisers earlier in the day previewed the new executive order as part of Mr. Trump’s commitment to protecting Medicare. Seniors “like what they have, so the president is going to protect it,” Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, said in a conference call with reporters. Mr. Azar also used the call to frame Democrats’ health care plan as too focused on reducing the ranks of the uninsured.

The executive order seeks to beef up Medicare Advantage, the plans offered by private insurers that contract with Medicare and currently cover about a third of the program’s 60 million beneficiaries, according to senior administration officials. The order also calls for lowering Medicare Advantage’s premiums, allowing providers to spend more time with patients and reducing Medicare fraud.

The executive order, originally called “Protecting Medicare From Socialist Destruction,” was renamed “Protecting and Improving Medicare for Our Nation’s Seniors” before Mr. Trump’s speech. But administration officials said the renaming was a distinction without a difference.

Joe Grogan, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the goal was still to contrast the administration’s commitment to protecting seniors with “the vision for Medicare as a one-size-fits-all, single-payer system” supported by many Democratic candidates.

“Medicare for all is Medicare for none,” added Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who has been a vocal critic not just of the Democratic proposals but also of the Affordable Care Act. “Proposals like Medicare for all, as well as the public option, they are morally wrong because they would demote American seniors to second-class status.”

Democrats competing for their party’s presidential nomination strongly disagree: All advocate expanding health care coverage, though their strategies to do so vary.

Mr. Trump’s appearance in a Republican-leaning region of Florida reflects the judgment of advisers who see health care, in recent years a Democratic issue, as a better focus for the president than the impeachment proceedings underway on Capitol Hill. And they see it as a way of tying all the Democratic candidates to the most progressive wing of the party and branding them as socialists.

Since his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act ended in failure, Mr. Trump has repeatedly promised to unveil a new health care plan. Instead he has issued a series of executive orders and proposed rules to counter Democratic health care proposals for expanding coverage.

In July, for instance, the administration said it was taking steps to make it easier to import some drugs from Canada and to force hospitals to disclose the discounted prices they negotiate with insurers.

Administration officials on Thursday morning underscored what has become a frequent talking point for Mr. Trump: that the price of prescription drugs fell in 2018 for the first time in decades.

But that claim is misleading. While the Consumer Price Index for prescription drugs declined in 2018, many experts say that is too narrow a measurement and that prices for many drugs, especially brand-name ones, have continued to rise.

Mr. Trump appeared at ease in front of a supportive audience.

“I should be retiring with you,” Mr. Trump said. “I should be in this audience, clapping. But I didn’t trust anybody to be standing here, because I know what you have.”