Donald Trump’s rambling, incoherent remarks on federal infrastructure spending during a wide-ranging interview with Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times have set headline writers abuzz with the desire to extract some kind of meaning and news value from his comments. “Trump says infrastructure plan could top $1 trillion,” wrote Marketwatch, while Reuters reports that “Trump says he may use his $1 trillion infrastructure plan as a political incentive.” The Times reporters who conducted the interview — both New Yorkers like Trump, and veterans of the city hall beat — wrote it up as a local story: “Trump Weighs Infrastructure Bill but Keeps New York Up in the Air.”
The truest line in any of this comes from Haberman and Thrush themselves, who observe that Trump’s “knowledge of complex policy issues can sometimes be lacking.”
And to the extent that that’s news, it’s the only actual news Trump made on infrastructure. His remarks make it clear that he doesn’t know anything about the substance of the issue or about the relevant congressional procedures. He doesn’t appear to be familiar with the related provisions of his own administration’s budget, and he isn’t putting in the time to lay the political groundwork for any legislation. The trillion-dollar infrastructure plan doesn’t exist except as a line of rhetoric.
It’s pure vaporware, and unless something dramatic changes to the overall structure of the administration, it always will be.
Trump is not working on an infrastructure bill
If a conventional administration repeatedly claimed to be working on an infrastructure bill, one could assume it was, in fact, working on an infrastructure bill. With the Trump administration, that assumption seems entirely unwarranted, due to the fact that Trump lies all the time, is extremely lazy, and has staffed his administration largely with ideologically orthodox Republicans who don’t even favor a large infrastructure spending plan. If you assume there is work being done on a plan, then parsing Trump’s ambiguous remarks for evidence of what it looks like makes sense.
But drop that assumption and the truth becomes clear. His remarks are ambiguous because nothing is happening. Consider:
- Trump says he’s had no need to meet with congressional Democrats on his infrastructure plan, “because they are desperate for infrastructure.”
- He explains that the reason his budget proposal cuts infrastructure spending rather than increasing it is “we don’t want money being thrown out the window, as it has been for many years.”
- At one point, Reed Cordish, a Trump adviser who’s been involved in staffing various agencies and doing actual governing work, cuts in to remark that a plan to reduce regulatory burdens on builders is “going to create benefit far beyond the federal dollars that we’re talking about.”
- Trump himself says that infrastructure is not taking up very much of his time because “right now I’m focused on China. Focused on the Middle East. We’re doing very, very well against ISIS, as you know.”
Last but by no means least, gaze in amazement at Trump’s full answer when Thrush tries to press him on the key question:
Nothing is accurate now because we haven’t made a final determination. We haven’t made a determination as to public/private. There are some things that work very nicely public/private. There are some things that don’t. The federal government, we’re doing very well you saw, a lot of good numbers coming out. You saw our imports. You saw what happened with China. And various other people that this country has been dealing with over the years. You saw the numbers come out today, they’re very promising. Lot of good numbers are coming out. We are borrowing very inexpensively. When you can borrow so inexpensively, you don’t have to do the public/private thing. Because public/private can be very expensive. When you go equity, when you give equity to people who own your highways essentially for a 30-year period, who own your tollbooths for a period of time — come on in, Mike! You know Mike and Reince?
Uh, we’re working on health care. Can I just say, so when you called the health care bill, you know, that was just a negotiation. You didn’t hear me say it’s over. That was a negotiation. You understand? A continuing negotiation. It may go on for a long time or it may go on until this afternoon. I don’t know. It’s a continuing negotiation.
At this point, Haberman points out that Trump is not, in fact, negotiating with Democrats on this subject.
Trump doesn’t know anything about infrastructure
In addition to Trump not doing any work on the legislative process around an infrastructure bill, the interview also makes it clear that he has no knowledge of the underlying subject matter. Consider his remarks on the Second Avenue Subway in New York, a transportation project that, unlike most transportation projects in the United States, directly impacts the neighborhood in which Trump has lived for decades:
On roads, on bridges, on many different things. And it’s also going to be — we have to refurbish to a large extent. You know, we can build new highways, which are much more expensive. And sometimes they’re the highways to hell. You know they’re called, like the Second Avenue subway, the tunnel to nowhere. Which, after spending 12 trillion, 12 billion dollars, they realize it now. But you know when they built the Second Avenue subway, you know they never knew where it was going. Did you know this? This was one of the great of all time. And then they ended up finishing it.
The project really has been remarkably (and excessively) expensive, but not nearly this expensive. It also hasn’t been finished. And the route is not the issue — the Second Avenue Subway runs underneath Second Avenue, hence the name.
Any number of actual or possible infrastructure projects in the United States involve more complexity than this, but Trump can’t even get the most bare-bones basics correct. Still, he insists on being arrogant about it. He insists that “I understand the subway very well,” even while conceding that he hasn’t actually ridden on the subway since he was a school kid living in Queens many decades ago.
Trump’s explanation for how he will overcome his lack of knowledge is that he will establish a commission, led by two other real estate developers who also lack relevant knowledge:
And I’m setting up a commission of very smart people that know how to spend money properly. That know how to build on time, on budget. And ideally, under time and under budget. I’m setting up a commission. It’s going to be headed by [the developer] Richard LeFrak and it’s going to be headed — they’re going to be co- — Steve Roth. R-O-T-H of Vornado. Two very talented, smart, tough people. And they are going to, along with me, put on a group of 20 people, 20 to 25 people on a commission. We’re going to run projects through them. And they will have great expertise in that room. We’ll have it from both coasts, and right down the middle. We’re going to have representatives from various parts of the country that are all are very, very successful in terms of infrastructure. From different fields, but always infrastructure. But everything is going to be run by them.
As a coda to this, there is no evidence that any such commission is actually being set up.
There’s not going to be a $1 trillion infrastructure plan
All of which is to say that Trump isn’t going to attach a $1 trillion infrastructure plan as a sweetener to his health care bill or his tax bill for the simple reason that there is no $1 trillion infrastructure plan and never will be. Trump has no plan, and no understanding of the issue, and to the extent that his aides are involved in infrastructure, it’s to try to convince him to talk up deregulation as more important than spending money.
His budget proposal calls for spending less on infrastructure, not more; congressional Republicans don’t favor a big infrastructure boost; and even though Chuck Schumer has put a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan on the table, Trump hasn’t bothered to meet with him.
Meanwhile, the budget instructions the GOP is trying to use to pass health care in a filibuster-proof way don’t make any provision for an infrastructure plan. To incorporate infrastructure into a tax reform package, Trump would need to get those instructions into a Republican-written fiscal year 2018 budget, but there is no indication that anyone on Capitol Hill is doing this.
It’s of course conceivable that Democrats will have a majority in the House after the 2018 midterms, dramatically shifting the political context and forcing some infrastructure idea onto the table. By the same token, maybe someday in the future Trump will completely revise his approach and come around to single-payer health care.
Politics is a strange and wonderful thing. But for the moment, all we really know is that Trump is an unreliable narrator of his own intentions and his own administration’s policies, and nothing is actually being done to bring any of these infrastructure schemes to fruition.