Act 1: Blow up a White House meeting with Democratic lawmakers that was over before the first handshake. Bye-bye, Infrastructure Day.
Act 2: Stride to a podium at a hastily arranged Rose Garden news conference to say he won’t work with Democrats on infrastructure or anything else while they pursue the “investigation track.”
What set the president off was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saying earlier Wednesday that Trump has engaged in a “coverup” related to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation and other probes.
“I don’t do coverups,” Trump angrily told reporters who had been hustled outside with little notice and less information.
Trump — who with his allies is actively working to block more than 20 separate investigations by Democrats — called himself “the most transparent president, probably, in the history of this country,” and said he had been ready to discuss infrastructure and other priorities before Pelosi’s remark.
Trump had complained earlier Wednesday on Twitter that Democrats, dissatisfied with Mueller’s findings, are seeking a “DO OVER” through congressional investigations.
The mounting inquiries have angered the president for weeks, but those investigations had not stopped the White House from scheduling Wednesday’s meeting. The meeting was still on, with
the original agenda, as of midmorning, White House and other officials said.
But that was before news coverage of Pelosi’s meeting with other Democrats on Wednesday morning. Pelosi said Trump had “engaged in a coverup,” harsh criticism that came moments after she had tamped down talk of impeachment in her caucus in a closed-door meeting — at least for now. Trump was “livid,” said one person familiar with his mood, although some of his own aides have argued that a dead-end impeachment effort would be politically helpful to the president, since it would further his reelection narrative that Democrats are out to get him at any cost.
“Whether or not they carry the big i-word out, I can’t imagine that, but they probably would because they do whatever they have to do,” a still-seething Trump told reporters.
Trump had decided, with buy-in from his staff, to essentially ambush Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others, according to accounts of the events from White House and congressional officials. The Democrats had been invited for a sit-down on what both parties say is the pressing need for a funding plan for roads, bridges and so forth. Rather than cancel the meeting, the White House let Pelosi and the others walk into the trap. Shortly before 11 a.m., press secretary Sarah Sanders suddenly alerted the staff to prepare the Rose Garden for a news conference at 11:20 a.m.
Trump stage-managed events from there.
Democrats waited at a conference table in the Cabinet Room for about 15 minutes, said a person directly familiar with the session who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity. Trump’s name-card was on the table between those for Pelosi and Schumer.
“He walks in, goes to the head of the table, not even his assigned seat, doesn’t sit, doesn’t shake anyone’s hand. Stands there and begins a lecture,” one aide said.
It was textbook Trump, who has said that walking away from a negotiation is an effective tactic in business. In politics, it also changes the day’s headlines.
Trump, narrating the scene later, said he had walked into the meeting and told his guests, “You know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with” and then we’ll talk.
Then Trump went directly to the hastily installed presidential lectern nicknamed the “Blue Goose,” to which aides had affixed placards labeled “Mueller Investigation By the Numbers.” The cards had been printed weeks ago for other uses, White House officials said.
The Rose Garden is always camera-ready, and it’s right outside Trump’s office door.
He stayed about 10 minutes, almost all of it a monologue. He took two brief questions and turned to go, ignoring others.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure meeting went on without him. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, among others, remained in the room as Pelosi did some venting of her own, according to three people familiar with the session, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of the meeting.
Pelosi, looking across the table at Mnuchin, described how presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt brought people to the White House to solve infrastructure problems, but Trump had chosen to walk out, these people said. Pelosi added that she had thought Trump was “looking for a way out.”
Then, Conway asked Pelosi whether she had a response for the president.
Pelosi replied that she would reply to the president, “not staff,” the people familiar with the meeting said.
As people got up to leave, Conway said to Pelosi, “That’s really pro-woman of you,” they said. By that time, Trump had given his own blow-by-blow version of events and blunted the shock value of Pelosi’s accusation.
Pelosi and the others left the White House without talking to reporters.
Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.