CSS Edits

Trump and Democrats Agree to Pursue $2 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

April 30, 2019
In The News

WASHINGTON — Democratic congressional leaders emerged from a meeting at the White House on Tuesday and announced that President Trump had agreed to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to upgrade the nation’s highways, railroads, bridges and broadband.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said that there had been “good will” in the meeting and that it was “different than some of the other meetings that we’ve had.” Standing alongside Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he said the group planned to meet again in three weeks, when Mr. Trump was expected to tell them how he planned to actually pay for the ambitious project.

The first substantive sit-down between Mr. Trump and Democratic leadership since the 35-day government shutdown last winter unfolded at a tense moment.

Since their last meeting at the White House, the special counsel released his 448-page report detailing Mr. Trump’s monthslong effort to thwart an investigation that loomed over his presidency. Ms. Pelosi, since then, has tried to caution her colleagues against impeaching the president, while facing growing pressure from her caucus and from 2020 Democratic presidential contenders to do so.

Mr. Trump is also going to great lengths to stonewall expanding investigations by House Democrats, resisting efforts to obtain his tax returns, preventing former aides from testifying and even pursuing legal action against Deutsche Bank, a longtime lender to the Trump Organization, and another bank to stop them from responding to congressional subpoenas.

But speaking to reporters on the driveway outside of the West Wing, Mr. Schumer told reporters there was no issue with pursuing both oversight and legislation along parallel tracks.

“In previous meetings, the president has said if these investigations continue, I can’t work with you,” Mr. Schumer said of the president.

“He didn’t bring it up. I believe we can do both at once,” Mr. Schumer added. “The two are not mutually exclusive, and we were glad he didn’t make it that way.”

“Infrastructure Week” has become a recurring trope of the Trump presidency. A $1 trillion infrastructure plan remains one of Mr. Trump’s unfulfilled promises from his 2016 campaign. The effort took a back seat to the administration’s failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and then to its successful passage of a tax overhaul in 2017.

The original plan was also one that everyone rejected from the beginning — Mr. Trump even criticized public-private partnerships, which were key to the plan’s financing — and no new plan has been put forward since.

But Democrats went to the White House for a meeting, intent to play along as if there was a chance.

Ms. Pelosi requested the meeting with Mr. Trump, in part to change the conversation from impeachment to infrastructure and to demonstrate that Democrats want to proceed with a policy agenda, and not merely with investigations of the president.

For Mr. Trump, an infrastructure deal would provide him with a bipartisan achievement he could point to while campaigning.

Democrats arrived on Tuesday with a dozen-member delegation of lawmakers. Mr. Trump was accompanied by Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, as well as seven White House aides, including his daughter Ivanka Trump, who is also a presidential adviser; Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council; and Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel.

“I would like to do something,” Mr. Trump told the group, according to a Democratic aide. “It may not be typically Republican.” The president made it clear that he had never supported the public-private partnership model to fund a bill that his aides, like Gary D. Cohn, his former top economic adviser, had pitched. “That was a Gary bill,” he said of his earlier attempt at an infrastructure bill. “That bill was so stupid.”

Meetings between the president and the two Democratic leaders have often taken a surprising turn.

Mr. Trump has conducted supposedly closed-door sessions on live television, or shuttled his guests to the Situation Room for maximum privacy. They, in turn, have surprised him by getting out their versions of what happened as soon as they got to the driveway in front of the White House, where reporters are usually waiting.

In September 2017, for instance, after Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi joined the president for in-house Chinese food, they announced that Mr. Trump had agreed to work on an immigration deal, including protections for thousands of young immigrants from deportation. Mr. Trump was later forced to backtrack from that position.

Tuesday’s 90-minute meeting took place behind closed doors and stayed broadly on topic. There was no discussion of hauling in the television cameras, according to a congressional aide.

While Mr. Trump has also abruptly walked out on congressional leaders, the mood on Tuesday stayed friendly. Extending a peace offering of sorts, Mr. Trump at one point offered Ms. Pelosi a white Tic Tac, which she accepted, according to a Democratic aide. At one point, the president noted that he liked the $2 trillion figure because it sounded better than $1.9 trillion.

But even meeting with the president struck some Democrats as out of step.

“We’re in the middle of a constitutional crisis here,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Mr. Schumer. “The most important job the Democrats have right now is to uphold the rule of law against a president who thinks the law doesn’t apply to him. We have bigger fish to fry than trying to look like we gave it a shot on infrastructure. This was the play in 2016. It strikes me as a very pre-Trump approach for how to manage.”

Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, expressed his own skepticism about the possibility of an infrastructure deal with Democrats. He said the two parties had major differences on the scope and timing of a plan, and he questioned the intentions of Democrats.

And Mr. Mulvaney, who was speaking the morning after experiencing a painful kidney stone, made it clear that he did not mind missing the meeting in Washington. “It was a fun night, but it’s better than going to the meeting at the White House with Chuck and Nancy,” he joked.

Mr. Mulvaney said he had advised the president that Republicans must push for environmental deregulation so new projects could get built within two years. He suggested that under current regulations, a trillion dollars’ worth of spending might not lead to new roads or bridges being built for 10 years.

“I want to change the environmental laws, how do you feel about that as a Democrat?” Mr. Mulvaney said. “It’s going to be a very difficult place for them to go. I think that may be the place where the discussions break down.”

Indeed, Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi made it clear before the meeting that a deal must include funding to curb rising planet-warming emissions and protect against its effects.

For Democrats, the strategy appeared to put the onus on Mr. Trump to deliver a real plan and to lock him into the enthusiasm he showed for it in their meeting.

“The key to the discussion, really, was the willingness of the president,” said Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “By the end of the meeting, he said, ‘I have responsibility to lead on this front as well, and I’m prepared to do so.’ ”