(Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Central to President Trump’s political mystique is the impression that he possesses total mastery over his political opponents. He seeks to overwhelm Democrats with fearsome claims of “treason,” threats to unleash migrants into their districts, and maximal resistance to “all” oversight. Such things elicit great roars at his rallies.

Yet at times, Trump also appears dimly aware that he needs congressional Democrats to get some of the things he wants. This produces a weird, two-track approach: Trump is asking those same Democrats he’s rage-threatening and accusing of treason to constructively engage with him on things such as changing immigration laws, passing his revamped NAFTA, and an infrastructure deal — things that would help solve some of the big political problems lurking underneath all the bravado.

A new example of this two-track absurdity has just presented itself. On Wednesday, Trump is set to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to discuss their previous agreement-in-principle to a $2 trillion infrastructure package.

But Trump has now blown up these negotiations with a new broadside — a letter demanding that Democrats pass his renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, and insisting he will not consider infrastructure until that’s done.

“Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular USMCA trade deal,” Trump wrote in the letter to Pelosi and Schumer, in a reference to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is NAFTA 2.0. After this is passed, Trump continued, “we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package.”

Despite the swaggering tone, this actually provides a revealing glimpse into some of the weaknesses saddling Trump as he faces reelection — and some of the reasons he may not be able to do anything about them.

Last month, Pelosi and Schumer got Trump to agree to a $2 trillion infrastructure package. But this agreement, of course, isn’t real: Democrats want it paid for with more progressive taxation, such as by undoing benefits for corporations under the Great and Glorious Tax Cut of 2017. That’s a nonstarter for congressional Republicans.

Meanwhile, deep sticking points remain over NAFTA 2.0. Many congressional Democrats won’t support it without changes strengthening its labor protections, and view its intellectual property protections as a giveaway to Big Pharma. So both of these are hanging in the balance.

Trump needs big wins to restore populist aura

It’s hard to overstate how helpful getting these things could prove to Trump’s reelection prospects. Trump’s strategy turns on going full steam ahead with the reactionary, nativist demagoguery on immigration, while executing a phony pivot back to the “economic populism” he jettisoned upon taking office.

Infrastructure was central to that original populist aura. Just after Trump’s 2016 win, Stephen K. Bannon vowed a “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan” that would usher in a trans-racial working-class populist realignment. The plan went “poof,” and Trump’s biggest accomplishment since has been a massive tax cut largely for the wealthy and corporations.

Trump would love an infrastructure deal to recapture that magic. But Trump’s new letter shows why he won’t get one. It glibly tells Pelosi and Schumer that it would be “helpful” if they come to Wednesday’s meeting with “specifics” on how they’d fund the plan — while declaring it won’t happen until they give him his way on trade first.

What this really means is that the White House and Republicans won’t ever agree to any progressive pay-for scheme acceptable to Democrats — you can see the hidden hand of tea party zealot-turned-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney here — and the White House wants Democrats to stick their necks out first. There won’t be any infrastructure deal.

Similarly, Trump would love to champion a renegotiated NAFTA. In calling on Congress to pass it, Trump has claimed it will revive manufacturing, even naming states key to reelection, such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. This may only grow more pressing, now that Trump may end up with either no trade deal or a bad deal with China, which could dim his reelection prospects.

Trump appears to be trying to goose Democrats into giving him NAFTA 2.0 by withholding an infrastructure deal. But where’s Trump’s leverage here?

Difficult calculations on both sides

To be clear, Democrats also face a dilemma. Lawmakers from moderate districts want to be seen getting things done in Washington, which is why Democratic leaders are talking to Trump about infrastructure and trade.

But with Trump sinking deeper into maximal resistance and lawlessness, including threats to prosecute Democrats, they face intense pressure to adopt a Total War footing. Trump’s rampaging renders his demands for constructive engagement absurd.

What’s more, Democrats know accomplishments on infrastructure and trade would boost his reelection hopes. They believe that despite the good economy, he’s widely seen to be making a hash of things with his trade wars, and that his first-term agenda has unmasked his economic populism as fraudulent.

“Trump’s inexperience and volatile behavior mean he’s gotten nothing done,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone told me. “And what little he has gotten done has been for the rich and corporations, so he has become a charlatan to the middle class.”

Deals on infrastructure and trade would go a long way toward helping Trump patch up both those weaknesses. No question, Democrats would also like to get such deals. But as it is, they don’t want to settle for either on Trump’s terms. And when it comes to the raw politics here, Trump probably needs them more than Democrats do.

Read more:

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: Democrats offer Trump an infrastructure deal that isn’t going to happen

Jennifer Rubin: Can Amash take on Trump in 2020?

Paul Waldman: First infrastructure plan of 2020 campaign: What it is and why it matters

Dana Milbank: Poof! There goes another Infrastructure Week.

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