On Wednesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi charged that President Donald Trump was “engaged in a cover-up.” In response, Trump claimed to have been so wounded that he called off a meeting about, and any further discussion of, the $2 trillion infrastructure bill the two sides had been considering.
“Instead of walking in happily into a meeting, I walk in to look at people that have just said that I was doing a cover-up,” Trump said at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. “I don’t do cover-ups.” He added, further, that he wouldn’t deal with Democrats until they “get these phony investigations over with.”
“You can go down the investigation track, and you can go down the investment track,” he said, but you can’t do both at the same time.
But, as the Democratic members and senators were eager to tell the press upon returning to Capitol Hill after their abbreviated meeting, Democrats were already investigating Trump three weeks ago when they held their first meeting on the issue. The meeting wasn’t just called off because Pelosi hurt the president’s feelings on Wednesday morning. It’s because the president’s grand infrastructure vision wasn’t going anywhere, and he took the convenient off-ramp: that Democrats were too maniacal to work with constructively.
The president—and this will stun you—had not fully thought out a plan to pay for $2 trillion in infrastructure spending. Democrats had suggested the president undo some of his signature 2017 tax legislation to pay for it, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately called this a “nonstarter,” and just about all Republicans agreed with him. House Republicans, not known for challenging the president’s dictates, said that $2 trillion was a wildly unrealistic sum, with House Republican Whip Steve Scalise saying there were not any financing options agreeable to both parties “that would come anywhere close to $2 trillion.” Senate Republican rank and file were similarly uninterested.
It was up to the White House to come up with the financing options and present it to Democratic leaders for the meeting scheduled on Wednesday. But Wednesday morning, Politico reported that “the White House is not going to present any plan to pay for rebuilding the nation’s roads and highways” and would instead ask Democrats to offer their own payment plan. This was not the first indication that Trump was trying to walk away: On Tuesday night, he sent Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer a letter saying that he felt they should pass his new North American trade agreement before working on an infrastructure bill.
In other words, he got to the difficult portion of the infrastructure argument, faced failure, and needed a way to back down.
“He is looking for every excuse, whether it was ‘Let’s do trade first’, or whether it was ‘He’s not going to pay for any funding,’ or … ‘There are investigations going on,’ ” Schumer told reporters afterward. “But now that he was forced to actually say how he’d pay for it, he had to run away, and he came up with this pre-planned excuse.”
“For some reason, maybe it was lack of confidence on his part … he just took a pass, and it just makes me wonder why he did that,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi is not as surprised as she claims to be, and the complete collapse of negotiations before financing discussions even began shows how performative this exercise was from the beginning.
The most accurate statement about the likelihood of a bipartisan infrastructure bill came weeks ago, the day of the first infrastructure meeting, from none other than the White House chief of staff. Mick Mulvaney said that there was interest in doing a deal, yes, but probably more interest in making a show of trying to get a deal. Each side had incentives to make this work: House Democrats wanted to give their vulnerable incumbents an accomplishment to run on in 2020, and Trump wanted to brag during reelection about how he was putting trillions of dollars into jobs. But Democrats also don’t want to cast Trump as a reasonable partner, and Trump wants to portray Democrats as useless, investigatory zealots. The bad incentives won out, as they usually do, with a canceled meeting merely serving as the dramatic device of choice.