Infrastructure talks run off the road by latest Trump, Dem fracas

From left, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Sen. Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., conclude a news conference in Capitol Visitor Center after a meeting on infrastructure at White House was canceled by President Donald Trump on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A White House meeting Wednesday on infrastructure between President Donald Trump and top congressional Democrats ended almost as soon as it began after the president pledged not to work with Democrats on any policy priorities until they ended investigations into his administration and campaign.

Trump left the meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer after just a few minutes, a move that the two Democrats said was staged ahead of time.

Schumer and Pelosi waited about 15 minutes for the president, who spoke for about three minutes before walking out — before anyone else spoke, according to a Democratic aide with knowledge of the meeting. 

At the onset, Trump was already loaded with reaction to Pelosi’s comments following an earlier House Democratic Caucus meeting on congressional oversight and potential impeachment proceedings against him. Pelosi had told reporters she believed Trump was “engaged in a cover-up.”

“I don’t do cover-ups,” Trump responded later at a Rose Garden press conference. “Instead of walking in happily into a meeting, I walk in to look at people that have just said that I was doing a cover-up.”

He insisted, as he has since Democrats won the House last fall, that they could not investigate and legislate at the same time. “We’re going to go down one track at a time,” he said.

After the meeting, Schumer said Democrats hope to work on anything they can with the president, including bipartisan talks on issues such as budget caps and disaster aid.

“We want to work with the president on anything we can, provided he’s willing to work with us. And so far it doesn’t look like it,” the New York Democrat said.

Pointing fingers

Both sides are claiming they’re more interested and more invested in an infrastructure plan than the other. Lawmakers in Congress from both parties have signaled they want an infrastructure package completed this year as industry groups warn that the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, water systems and other public works are in decrepit condition and in desperate need of repair and upgrades.

“I walked into the room, and I told Sen. Schumer and Speaker Pelosi, ‘I want to do infrastructure. I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at that. That’s what I do. But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with,’” Trump said.

Back at the Capitol, Schumer said his takeaway from the brief meeting was that Trump was not interested in working out a path forward on shoring up the nation’s troubled infrastructure.

Schumer said he was prepared to give Trump a 35-page plan detailing the areas where Democrats want to invest in infrastructure.

“He just took a pass,” Pelosi said of Trump. She surmised that it may be a “lack of confidence on his part” on whether he can rise to the challenge of delivering a bold $2 trillion package.

While both Republicans and Democrats say they want to make serious inroads into improving infrastructure, how to pay for an ambitious proposal is the main wedge between them.

Schumer said there were no indications leading up to or during the meeting that Trump was prepared to offer ideas on how to pay for an infrastructure package.

“Financing is the hardest part of infrastructure. And we think they were just not prepared to give an answer,” he said. “Now that he was forced to say how he would pay for it, he had to run away. And he came up with this pre-planned excuse.”

A spontaneous move?

Pelosi and Schumer said political theater was at play before they had even arrived at the White House. The curtains were closed when the lawmakers walked in, according to Schumer.

“It’s clear that this was not a spontaneous move on the president’s part. It was planned,” the minority leader said. “And of course, he went to the Rose Garden with prepared signs that had been printed long before our meeting.”

Both parties knew that the meeting had the potential to go off the rails. Trump put Congress on notice in a letter Tuesday night saying that the $2 trillion infrastructure proposal would be contingent upon Congress backing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the regional trade deal that would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

“Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular USMCA trade deal,” Trump wrote to Pelosi and Schumer. 

Republicans and Democrats are already negotiating over the NAFTA overhaul, including labor and environmental provisions that Democrats would like to see changes to, said Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. 

“What we had today was real missed opportunity,” he said. “We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The president wants to focus on renegotiating NAFTA. I’m happy to do that.”  

Trump did not mention trade or the USMCA at the Rose Garden event.

Carper said he hopes that as the summer heats up, tempers may cool down. 

“We’ll have a one-week Memorial Day recess. We’ll come back, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail,” he said. “And … maybe we’ll have a miracle, and the administration will actually come up with a plan, which is what we’ve asked for.”

Elvina Nawaguna contributed to this report. 

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