Two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, Infrastructure Week has come to promise five business days of drama and discussion about almost anything other than infrastructure.
With campaign season ramping up, though, that may be about to change.
The origins of this story begin on a Friday in June 2017, when Gary Cohn, then the chairman of the National Economic Council, teased that the following Monday would kick off Infrastructure Week at the White House. There was reason to believe that the occasion, centered on an overhaul of the nation’s air-traffic-control system, could plant the seeds for bipartisan legislation to upgrade the nation’s bridges, highways, and railroads. On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump had pledged to pursue a $1 trillion infrastructure package in office, an idea that, truth be told, had more Democrats excited than Republicans.
But the White House’s plan swiftly crumbled, in large measure because the president wasn’t on the same page. Instead of using Infrastructure Week to advance a campaign promise, Trump shifted all attention to his store of personal grievances, bashing his own Justice Department for submitting a “politically correct” version of his travel ban to the Supreme Court, and calling London’s mayor “pathetic” for his response to an Islamic State attack there. In short, air-traffic-control reforms did not dominate the airwaves.
The White House gave Infrastructure Week another go two months later, this time planning to focus on the federal-permitting process. Yet what stuck in most Americans’ minds about that week was not Trump’s pledge to streamline the approvals needed to start construction projects, but instead his remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white-supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
And who could forget the Infrastructure Week of February 2018—meant to promote a $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan centered on public-private partnerships—when the Trump lawyer Michael Cohen revealed he’d paid off the adult-film star Stormy Daniels?
Somewhere along the way, Infrastructure Week became an internet meme, a symbol of the White House’s inability to stay on message and to keep the president on message, too. The administration’s repeated attempt to drive a policy conversation had become something like a bizarre game of telephone, the initial message about fixing roads and bridges somehow morphing into talk of neo-Nazis and porn stars. Yet even if each Infrastructure Week generated no actual legislative progress, it at least made for an amusing intersection of Washington and internet culture.
Wishing all of you a warm and wonderful Infrastructure Week. pic.twitter.com/WjcfMQKMBl— Elizabeth Picciuto (@epicciuto) February 12, 2018
hey how come no one told me it was infrastructure week https://t.co/HcnbXv8f8q— Catherine Rampell (@crampell) August 21, 2018
On Twitter, Infrastructure Week became a shorthand for the constant churn of the Trump era, with the underlying premise that the announcement of a new Infrastructure Week foreshadowed chaos to come. Even Republicans would privately chuckle that the issue had become a punch line: Before the 2018 midterms, when they controlled both chambers of Congress, they were more interested in tackling items like tax reform, anyway.
But today, the stakes of any Infrastructure Week are much higher—and, for Republicans, more serious. With Democrats in power in the House, an infrastructure bill is likely the one major piece of legislation that could attract support from members of both parties ahead of the 2020 election. Though neither side wants to give the other a political win, there’s broad consensus that the nation’s infrastructure needs upgrading. This means that if Trump wants to claim one final significant legislative victory to tout on the campaign trail, any Infrastructure Weeks to come will actually have to concern themselves with, well, infrastructure. As White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told my colleague Peter Nicholas and me recently, if Congress can’t manage to pass an infrastructure bill, “it could be a slow couple of years.”
Tuesday, however, seemed to indicate a promising start. Around mid-morning, Trump met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, among other Democrats, to discuss a possible deal. Schumer emerged from the Oval Office meeting in good spirits, telling reporters that the threesome had agreed to pursue a $2 trillion plan to renovate highways, railroads, and bridges. Schumer said the group would meet again in three weeks, when Trump would present his plan for funding the project.
I'm thinking of popping the cork on a bottle. After 2 years and 3 months, "Infrastructure Week" finally happened. Mark the date!!!— John Roberts (@johnrobertsFox) April 30, 2019
Ultimately, it was the president’s most successful Infrastructure Week so far, culminating, essentially, in a deal to make a deal. (It may have helped that the big meeting took place only one day into the workweek—and that the White House didn’t lean into any overt Infrastructure Week branding.)
For now, most Republicans are declining to weigh in until a payment plan is ready. On Wednesday, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the majority whip, told reporters that the bill would have to be paid for entirely in order to pass the Senate. (A senior Senate Republican aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to comment freely, told me this reflects the view of most members in the GOP conference.) And House leaders, such as Minority Whip Steve Scalise, have already voiced skepticism that the two parties could agree on how to fund it, especially if Democrats propose a tax hike. The next three weeks could give way to a rare dynamic in the Trump era, in which the president and Democrats find themselves aligned, while Republicans act as the wild card.
It could make for one of the most interesting Infrastructure Weeks yet.