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Trump to Congress: I’ll work with you on infrastructure — if you pass my trade deal

The infrastructure deal has become a proxy fight for other political priorities.

Donald Trump Holds “MAGA” Rally In Central Pennsylvania
US President Donald Trump speaks during a “Make America Great Again” campaign rally at Williamsport Regional Airport, May 20, 2019, in Montoursville, Pennsylvania.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Ahead of a Wednesday meeting with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, President Donald Trump basically blew up infrastructure week.

In a letter the White House sent on Tuesday night, Trump said that he wasn’t particularly interested in considering an infrastructure deal, unless Congress ratified a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada first. “Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular USMCA trade deal,” he wrote.

Congressional consideration of the Trump administration’s replacement to NAFTA is still very much a work in progress, even as the White House has ramped up pressure to get it done in the coming months. As Vox’s Jen Kirby reports, the administration’s move to lift steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico and Canada most recently eliminated a major barrier the agreement was facing. Democrats, however, still have outstanding questions about certain labor and environmental provisions in the agreement. And by saying that he’ll only work on infrastructure if this other major request is met first, the president threw up a huge roadblock to a deal that’s already growing less and less likely.

Trump appears to see Democrats’ desire to complete a bipartisan infrastructure agreement as potential leverage. His letter is the latest development that explains why infrastructure week has become the joke that it is. As it signaled, laying out demands related to infrastructure has become just another way to send a message on other political aims. In effect, the infrastructure discussions are simply serving as a proxy to do so.

Every week is infrastructure week

The trope of the elusive “infrastructure week” has been repeated so often since the start of the Trump administration that it’s become a running joke.

Ever since Trump was elected, infrastructure has been touted as one of the few policy areas where he could actually get something done. The problem is, despite repeated attempts to tackle the issue, the administration hasn’t been able to accomplish much at all.

As an NPR report points out, this failure is due to both the administration’s lack of a clear plan and the myriad scandals that happened to emerge every time the White House has tried to focus on infrastructure. In June 2017, for example, the first of many “infrastructure weeks,” FBI Director James Comey was gearing up to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee after Trump had unceremoniously fired him. Later that summer, when Trump issued an executive order streamlining the permitting process for infrastructure projects, he did so in the wake of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

But it’s not that both parties are getting distracted this time. As Trump’s letter Tuesday makes clear, there’s little interest in making “infrastructure week” about infrastructure.

Democrats, too, have used the infrastructure package as a vehicle for some of their political messaging in the past, emphasizing the need to roll back some of the 2017 tax cuts as a payment mechanism, a possibility Republicans have long scoffed at.

Other parts of Trump’s letter cast doubt on the viability of a potential infrastructure deal as well. While Democrats had expected Trump to lay out his funding recommendations on Wednesday, he argued in the letter that he also wanted them to bring specifics on that front.

“It would be helpful if you came to tomorrow’s meeting with your infrastructure priorities and specifics regarding how much funding you would dedicate to each,” he wrote. “Your caucus has expressed a wide range of priorities, and it is unclear which ones have your support.”

Paying for an infrastructure plan is the sticking point that’s tripped up such packages in the past. Trump’s letter shows that this might not be the only obstacle the deal faces this time around.