Even if only for 90 minutes, Washington had declared a truce.
In a freewheeling discussion initially scheduled to talk about the nation’s roads and bridges, President Trump and top Democrats ignored any notion that the White House and Congress were locked in an escalating power struggle over investigations into the president that could lead to impeachment proceedings.
Absent was any chatter about Trump’s determination to resist any subpoena from House Democrats. Nothing about the standoff between Democrats and the administration over the scheduled testimony this week of Attorney General William P. Barr.
Instead, Trump and a dozen senior Democrats merrily debated infrastructure — a topic that has surfaced so often during Trump’s presidency that “Infrastructure Week” has become a running joke in Washington. The two sides agreed to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure package — although an official White House statement pointedly did not include that figure — and agreed to meet again in three weeks to continue the bipartisan bonhomie.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the same person who is embroiled in an acrimonious fight with the administration over obtaining six years of the president’s tax returns.
The Cabinet Room meeting on Tuesday, though it remained closed to the news media, seemed to showcase Trump’s desired image as the consummate dealmaker while undercutting his earlier warnings that congressional investigations could not peacefully coexist with productive policymaking.
As they burrow deeper with a slew of oversight probes, Democrats have repeatedly insisted that Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time. And according to multiple participants in Tuesday’s White House confab, it seemed that Trump and Democrats agreed on issues more often than not.
Trump distanced himself from a proposal laid out by his own administration to use smaller amounts of public money to spur private spending on infrastructure — a public-private partnership concept that has been similarly shunned by Democrats.
“That was a Gary bill,” Trump said, according to a Democratic official who described the conversation on the condition of anonymity, referring to former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn. “That bill was so stupid.”
Trump and the Democrats also largely agreed on the potential scope of a massive infrastructure effort — that it should include not only roads and bridges, but also investments in broadband technology and the power grid, according to senators and aides.
And while the group mostly skirted around the issue of exactly how to pay for such an extensive effort, Trump deferred to Pelosi — whose power over her rank-and-file members he privately admires.
“I like the number you’ve been using, Nancy: $2 trillion,” Trump told the speaker, according to the Democratic official’s account. “$2 trillion. That number you can talk about.”
White House press officials did not respond to a request for confirmation of Trump’s private remarks.
Even on health care, Trump made bipartisan overtures.
Without any prompting from Democrats, Trump asked them about the status of a largely dormant health-care package written by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to bolster the Affordable Care Act by funding subsidies to help stabilize President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
The White House has actually indicated it would veto that same bill, the fact of which Murray reminded Trump as she sat in the Cabinet Room with him. But, according to several senators, Trump on Tuesday was singing a different tune.
“The president said, ‘That was a good deal. . . . We should revisit that,’” recalled Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), another senator who attended the meeting. “And I certainly agree.”
Another official briefed on the meeting called it “uncharacteristically muted.” And some Democrats were baffled at why senior lawmakers could be willing to strike a deal with the White House as Washington teeters on the precipice of a constitutional crisis.
“It’s hard to understand the strategy behind throwing Trump a lifeline with a symbolic photo op on a bill that probably won’t happen and normalizing him at the very moment that he’s thumbing his nose at committee chairs trying to exercise their constitutional oversight responsibilities,” said Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to now-retired Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Still, Democrats are well aware that one productive meeting won’t necessarily beget another, particularly with a mercurial president.
“I’ve been in so many of these meetings,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) “So often you know, what is said at 10 o’clock in the morning is going to — I’m being diplomatic — going to evolve in the next few hours and you wonder where things are.”
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that by their next meeting, Trump must show his cards on exactly how he would pay for the package. That could be when any possibility of an infrastructure deal could collapse.
Until then, they appeared perfectly content to keep up the facade that everyone is getting along just fine.
“The House and the Senate can proceed in [their] oversight responsibilities,” Schumer said. “The two are not mutually exclusive, and we were glad he didn’t make it that way.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.