President Donald Trump was talking infrastructure with senior congressional Democrats Tuesday in the Oval Office when he threw a former aide under the bus.
“That was a Gary bill. That bill was so stupid,” Trump said, according to a senior Democratic aide. He was referring to his former chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and an infrastructure modernization plan that the White House rolled out last year featuring mostly private-sector and state funds that even Republican lawmakers doubted would materialize. It fell flat, never gaining a second of traction on Capitol Hill, despite Trump's GOP controlling both chambers.
Tuesday offered a rare occurrence: Some bipartisan harmony, though it essentially was about an agreement to keep talking.
“It’s clear that the White House and all of us want to get something done on infrastructure in a big and bold way. And there was good will in this meeting and that was different than some of the other meetings that we have had, and that is a very good thing,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the meeting.
But the two sides have a long way to go. Here are three things to watch from the president and his team.
The closed-door Tuesday meeting was held at Democrats’ request, with Trump giving the floor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi when the discussion turned toward the public works package both sides say they want, according to a senior Democratic aide.
"I would like to do something. It may not be typically Republican,” the president told the Democrats, according to the aide, before adding this: “I’ll lead on this.”
But will he?
Trump delivered public remarks a few hours after Pelosi, Schumer and other Democrats left the White House. He praised 2018 NASCAR champion Joey Logano and his team during a South Lawn ceremony after he name-checked several Cabinet officials and lawmakers in attendance. One was Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “Elaine, thank you. Transportation,” he said, but he opted against dropping in a public plug for an infrastructure bill that largely would fall under her purview.
Since the meeting ended, the president has tweeted about the economy, Cuba’s activities in Venezuela, former President Barack Obama and Russia’s 2016 election meddling, as well as other topics. But not infrastructure.
Pelosi came to the microphones outside the West Wing after the meeting and declared a few things about the kind of bill Democrats want.
“It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs. It’s about promoting commerce. It’s about clean air, clean water, so therefore a public health issue. It’s a quality of life issue, getting people out of their cars not being on the road so much,” the speaker said. “We are very excited about the conversation we had with the president to advance an agenda of that kind.”
A White House official said the Democratic leaders “are going a little far” in suggesting the president was receptive to their demands a package include “clean” energy provisions. The official described Trump as willing to listen, but advised a few reporters during a Tuesday afternoon conversation to “wait and see on that part.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway earlier Tuesday advised Democrats to avoid trying to shove their “Green New Deal” into the infrastructure talks, saying only Trump might be willing to negotiate on a few clean energy ideas.
Just what the president supports is far from clear. Put another way: What would he sign into law, if both chambers - somehow amid House Democrats’ investigations of Trump and a 2020 election cycle that’s already at a broil - pass a public works bill?
It’s really anyone’s guess, as always.
The White House put out a statement following the meeting that was heavy on adjectives - but short on details. It described an “excellent and productive meeting” about “crumbling infrastructure” and using the potential legislation to expand broadband to “our great farmers.”
The words “clean” and “energy” were not in the statement, nor was any specific dollar amount after Schumer said the president agreed to a $2 trillion package.
“I like the number you’ve been using, Nancy. $2 trillion,” Trump said, according to the senior Democratic aide. “That number you can talk about.” The White House would not confirm or deny he endorsed any number.
Trump has blessed several pieces of legislation before later sinking them. And now House Democrats are investigating his business and political activities. Trump signaled in his February State of the Union speech he did not think they could work together if the probes continued.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump said then. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
Pelosi and Schumer ignored a question Tuesday about whether they believe Trump’s words about infrastructure.
“While we may have our difficulties in other areas,” Pelosi said when asked about negotiation on public works as the probes continue, “we cannot, we cannot, we cannot ignore the needs of the American people as we go forward.”