The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s infrastructure push, a marquee campaign promise, is overshadowed by controversy and tragedy

President Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers about infrastructure in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018.
President Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers about infrastructure in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Even for a White House known for veering wildly off subject, President Trump’s efforts to highlight his plans to rebuild the nation’s ailing infrastructure seem particularly cursed.

The first time Trump sought to put a week-long spotlight on his administration’s plans, the effort quickly imploded with former FBI Director James B. Comey’s dramatic testimony before Congress.

The second time the White House launched an “infrastructure week,” it was derailed by Trump blaming “both sides” for violence at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville that left one woman dead.

Last week, as the White House prepared its biggest push yet — with the rollout of an actual plan — the effort was overshadowed by continuing coverage of alleged domestic abuse by a senior Trump aide, a horrific school shooting in Florida and the indictment of Russian Internet trolls for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. That same week, the president’s veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin, came under renewed scrutiny for a trip he took to Europe, and Trump himself faced yet another round of accusations of extramarital affairs, including from a former Playboy model.

“It’s become a bit of a running joke, the words ‘infrastructure week,’” Republican consultant Doug Heye said. “If Trump made much progress this week, I don’t know that anyone would have seen it.”

Trump’s failure to gain traction on a marquee campaign promise, however, cannot be explained entirely by circumstance.

Trump’s big infrastructure plan has a lot of detail on everything but how to pay for it

The president’s own rhetoric last week left lawmakers questioning how committed he is to seeing legislation pass. Some aides wonder if he’s lost interest in the subject. And Trump has continued to send mixed signals about key aspects of his plan, including how it should be paid for.

The White House initiative aims to pump $1.5 trillion into roads, bridges, airports and other critical infrastructure over the coming decade and dramatically reduce the time it takes to get federal permits for such projects.

Though touted as a bipartisan push, the plan Trump formally unveiled Monday was widely panned by Democrats, who complained that all but $200 billion of the tab would have to be picked up by states and localities.

While some setbacks were unforeseen — Trump canceled an event highlighting a highway construction project in Florida in the wake of the Parkland school shooting — even some in the president’s own party were underwhelmed by the rollout of his 53-page plan.

“It was just kind of dumped out there,” said one Republican consultant close to the White House, who requested anonymity to offer a more candid assessment.

Trump debuted the plan at a White House discussion with state and local leaders, but it was eclipsed by the handling of abuse allegations against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter.

Trump administration wants to sell National and Dulles airports, other assets across U.S.

Traditionally, presidents have tried to make a much bigger splash when pushing a major initiative. Instead, Trump seemed less than enthused about the prospects for his plan at some points. At Monday’s meeting, Trump said that he finds infrastructure “very, very, very sexy” and urged those in attendance to help push his plan. But he added some ambivalence of his own: “And if you don’t want it, that’s okay with me, too.”

Trump also expressed hope that the initiative would draw support from members of Congress, but he added: “If for any reason, they don’t want to support to it, hey, that’s going to be up to them.”

Some White House aides say Trump remains strongly committed to the initiative, as evidenced by his lengthy discussion of its merits last week with governors, mayors and other officials. And, they note, Trump and Cabinet officials plan to travel the country promoting an initiative in coming weeks.

“President Trump has brought a lifetime of experience in conceiving and delivering large-scale projects ahead of schedule and under budget to the White House,” said spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. “Following the release of his legislative outline this week, he is eager to serve as America’s builder-in-chief and work with Congress to build a stronger America.”

Trump would cut more in federal infrastructure spending than he proposes to add, Democrats say

Still, White House officials and others in frequent touch with the West Wing said they believe there has been a certain breakdown between the theoretical, conceptual idea of infrastructure — which Trump loves — and the tangible, practical reality of trying to pass the unwieldy proposal. 

On the campaign trail, talking about infrastructure offered Trump yet another way to explain his promise to make America great again, one official said. Another noted that infrastructure is central to the president’s image of himself as a builder and real estate executive.

But the president, known for a short attention span that often sends him pinballing between topics, rarely brings up infrastructure unprompted in private conversations, the first official added. 

“As it has turned more into a policy, he’s just kind of become less excited about it,” the official said.

The president has also been told by some allies that the infrastructure plan, in its current state, is unlikely to make it through Congress, making him less likely to wholeheartedly try to sell it and attach his own political clout to a potentially failed initiative, one outside adviser said.

On Capitol Hill, concerns also exist, even within Trump’s own party. One top Republican aide said the bill is too big and should have been rolled out in smaller pieces.

Trump’s plan to streamline federal permitting for infrastructure projects has won far more praise than his plans to reward states and localities willing to raise taxes or other revenue to build projects with federal money.

In the run-up to Monday’s release of Trump’s plan, the White House did not take the basic step, one Republican Hill aide said, of first enumerating the problems that plague the country’s infrastructure and specify what the Trump plan hopes to fix. Nor did the White House garner the support of various interest groups or work to create broad coalitions in support of the proposal, several people added.

White House budget proposes increase to defense spending and cuts to safety net, but federal deficit would remain

The White House also chose to roll out its infrastructure initiative on the same day it released its budget blueprint for the coming year, a decision that left many longtime Washington observers scratching their heads. 

The budget was considered the bigger story by most media outlets, and it contained cuts to several existing infrastructure programs, handing Democrats ammunition to question Trump’s commitment.

“It goes against conventional wisdom: You have one subject a day, and you stick to it,” said Jim Manley, a lobbyist and longtime aide to Harry M. Reid, the former Senate minority leader.

Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said this is an administration that has long flouted convention and this rollout was no different.

“The way they do it is to provide a broad outline, give the president a talking point to hit on the stump and sell it in concept, and then rely on Congress to work to fill in the details,” Holmes said of the White House’s approach.

One of the biggest missing details in Trump’s plan is how to pay for it. 

While some interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have called for raising the federal gas tax, senior Trump aides told reporters before the rollout that his budget includes enough cuts to other programs to cover the $200 billion federal commitment — and that a new revenue source isn’t required.

Trump urges GOP to consider a 25-cent hike in the gas tax

Two days after the rollout, though, in his closed-door meeting with lawmakers, Trump told lawmakers that he was open to a 25-cent increase in the gas tax — the amount the chamber has floated — and that he would provide political cover if they chose to pass it.

Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, had talked down that prospect the day before, telling reporters that raising the gas tax “is not ideal.”

Friday offered fresh evidence that the White House plans to continue to push the proposal. 

Around 1:30 p.m., the press office sent out a release to reporters with the headline: “WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE PRESIDENT’S INFRASTRUCTURE INITIATIVE.”

It landed in reporters’ inboxes just as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein stepped to a lectern to discuss an indictment of 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 election — yet another story that would eclipse Trump’s infrastructure effort.