House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer had a very clear wish on the eve of Tuesday’s meeting with President Trump: No cameras, no live TV.
“I hope not,” the Maryland Democrat said Monday evening, believing Trump on camera and Trump off camera are different personalities. “That doesn’t lead to productive discussions.”
With Hoyer’s wish granted, Trump and a dozen congressional Democrats sat behind closed doors at a White House meeting that by all accounts was cordial and productive. They announced a framework for a $2 trillion infrastructure deal that would transform roads, bridges, public transit, rural broadband and more.
Chances are this deal collapses well before the next meeting of this same group, tentatively set for three weeks off. Republicans back at the Capitol demonstrated little appetite for such an expensive project.
But the meeting served as the latest example of how differently Trump acts around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), depending on the optics.
Give him a closed room, no TV cameras, without conservative handlers around — his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were not on hand — and Trump turns into the wheeler and dealer of the Manhattan real estate world.
“I like the number you’ve been using, Nancy, $2 trillion,” the president privately told Pelosi and other Democrats on Tuesday, according to a Democratic readout of the meeting. He had endorsed a $2 trillion plan, a stunning break from conservative orthodoxy.
But if Trump ushers the top Democrats into a meeting with the press corps on hand, he turns into the blunt-talking reality-TV star who gained fame by insulting others and declaring “You’re fired.”
“It’s not easy for her to talk right now,” Trump said to the cameras in a December meeting as Pelosi sat next to him. He insulted her by suggesting she would not to win the speaker’s race a few weeks off.
This week’s meeting had all the echoes of a September 2017 meeting with just Schumer, Pelosi, Trump and some senior aides discussing a broad range of issues related to immigration.
The walk-up to that meeting had been contentious, with Trump announcing that he was giving Congress six months to come up with a resolution to the standoff on the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive action, taken by then-President Barack Obama, protecting more than 1 million immigrants from deportation.
But when he met with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump gave in to Democratic demands that would allow a path to citizenship for those “dreamers.” The president even issued a tweet guaranteeing no deportations for those under DACA protections as Congress worked out the details of the deal, a tweet that Pelosi specifically asked him to deliver.
“He likes us. He likes me, anyway,” Schumer said after the meeting, caught on a mic on the Senate floor.
For a brief moment, Trump stopped talking about immigrants in harsh tones. Schumer even signaled that Democrats would support $25 billion to fund new border security, including some wall and fencing, with a path to citizenship open for 1.8 million immigrants brought illegally here as children.
Then, day by day, conservatives inside his administration, in the Capitol and, perhaps most importantly, on TV and talk radio erupted in opposition. Trump backed away from the deal.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) smiled for several seconds Tuesday recalling how that meeting unfolded and how the president got reeled back in by conservatives.
Would the outcome be the same with this emerging infrastructure deal?
“Well, we’ll see what happens with this one,” Thune, the majority whip, told reporters.
The more famous Trump-Pelosi-Schumer meeting happened Dec. 11, about five weeks after House Democrats had routed Republicans in the midterm elections and were poised to take the majority when the new Congress was sworn in Jan. 3.
Republicans considered the meeting a disaster because Trump brought the White House press corps into the Oval Office for a vast portion of the meeting and took ownership on camera of what turned into the 35-day government shutdown that followed.
For 17 minutes, Trump, Pelosi and Schumer squared off on the need for $5 billion to fund the president’s border-wall demands, often in personal terms about their own political standing. Schumer mocked Trump over the midterm election results, saying that they should have “consequences” and that Pelosi’s new majority would not give into his funding request.
Trump poked at Pelosi and questioned her standing because, to that point, she had not yet secured enough support to guarantee her return as speaker.
“Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory,” Pelosi shot back.
After Trump took ownership of the shutdown during that meeting, much of the public then blamed him over the next six weeks for the impasse.
The entire time, Vice President Pence sat silently, looking on quizzically as the trio talked over one another in a performance that cable TV played over and over for days.
So, on the eve of Tuesday’s meeting, Schumer thought that maybe Democrats could benefit if Trump decided to let the cameras into the infrastructure meeting.
“Didn’t work out so badly last time,” he told reporters Monday.
Instead, Trump shut the doors and dealt out his share of insults — except to other Republicans. He dismissed his previous infrastructure proposals as the work of aides who have now left, throwing his support to an untraditional plan for a Republican.
“I’ll lead on this,” Trump said, according to Democrats.
Back in the Capitol, Republicans shrugged. They had seen this closed-door version of Trump before, and they expected him to return to form.
McConnell noted that “my roommate” had been in the meeting, referencing his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, but no GOP lawmakers.
He dismissed as a “nonstarter” Democratic proposals to repeal tax cuts for the wealthy to finance the projects.
Even Schumer held off in expressing too much hope that this version of Trump would remain steady and get to a true bipartisan deal.
“The ball is in their court,” he told reporters back in the Capitol.