WASHINGTON – As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer sat down with President Trump at the White House last Tuesday to talk about an infrastructure bill, Trump’s acting chief of staff explained why they were wasting their time.
“Is an infrastructure deal realistic in 2019?” Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo asked Mick Mulvaney at a Milken Institute event in California.
“Uhhh,” Mulvaney replied with a doubtful smile. He said Democrats want to “make a show,” but agreement “breaks down” over the administration’s determination to change environmental laws and other regulations.
For more than two years, Trump has been trying to roll out an infrastructure plan, as he promised during the campaign. At every step, it has faltered.
In June 2017, Trump pitched the framework of an infrastructure plan – but former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony before the Senate immediately overshadowed the effort.
Trump tried again in August 2017 – but his response to the racist violence in Charlottesville eclipsed the effort.
A third attempt came in February 2018 – and was trampled by the Parkland, Florida, shooting, the indictment of Russian internet trolls and allegations of affairs by Trump.
With those and other false starts, “Infrastructure Week” has become a euphemism for the erratic nature of Trump’s presidency. Each attempt to rally support for urgently needed infrastructure spending has been stepped on.
Trump tried Tuesday. He didn’t let cameras into his meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, avoiding the debacle that occurred at their last meeting, before the government shutdown. The two Democrats emerged full of optimism.
“That agreement would be big and bold,” Pelosi said of their agreement to spend $2 trillion over 10 years.
“Big and bold,” Schumer repeated. They postponed the contentious issue of how to pay for the big, bold bill.
But within minutes, Trump was tweeting about other matters: criticizing European allies, threatening a “complete” embargo of Cuba and encouraging Juan Guaidó’s uprising against the Venezuelan government.
Back in June 2017, before the phrase became a punchline, Vice President Pence proclaimed that “we’re actually calling it Infrastructure Week in this administration.” At the time, Trump predicted that infrastructure spending would “take off like a rocket ship.”
Or not. A 53-page, $1.5 trillion plan Trump offered in February 2018 also went nowhere, largely because it offered just $200 billion in federal funds. Now, in the latest Infrastructure Week, Trump has no proposal. In Tuesday’s session, which both sides called productive, he readily agreed with Democrats on the $2 trillion target, and they put off the hard decisions for another day.
But by the time they announced the agreement, Mulvaney had already pronounced the latest infrastructure gambit an exercise in masochism. “Oww,” he said, gingerly taking his seat onstage at the Milken conference. “Kidney stones,” he reported. He paused. “It was a fun night,” he said. “But it’s better than going to the meeting with Chuck and Nancy at the White House.”
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.