By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on June 9, 2017
The White House's self-proclaimed "infrastructure week" has generated a flurry of headlines on nearly everything else.
Part of the reason the initiative was overshadowed was ex-FBI Director James Comey's gripping testimony on Capitol Hill, which commanded the attention of Washington and major cable news networks all week.
But much of the derailment on the infrastructure rollout has been of President Trump's own making. He repeatedly veered off message in tweets and during infrastructure-themed speeches, flouting some of White House staffers’ carefully laid plans.
“They tried really hard, and certainly several people inside care deeply about this,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, who worked under the Clinton administration.
“But inside the White House, you have to have incredible discipline to stay on message, regardless of what else happens. Everyone inside has to be on the same page, and that just didn’t happen.”
The White House launched a weeklong infrastructure initiative designed to ramp up support for Trump’s $1 trillion rebuilding proposal, which has yet to be fully released but remains a top priority for the president.
The administration has been under increasing pressure to show progress on the package, especially as officials seek to move past Comey’s abrupt firing and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Aides plotted out a string of high-profile events to draw attention to different components of Trump’s plan, ranging from waterways and airports to roads and bridges.
During a press call announcing infrastructure week, White House officials sounded hopeful that they could build the consensus needed to move the proposal through Congress.
“We absolutely do feel that the infrastructure package can be accomplished this year,” an administration official told reporters last Friday. “We are working every day to that end.”
But hours before the infrastructure event kicked off at the White House on Monday, Trump fired off a series of tweets that blamed his Justice Department for writing a second “watered down” version of his travel ban, labeled Democrats as “obstructionists,” and slammed London’s mayor following a terrorist attack in the city.
By the time Trump unveiled plans to modernize air traffic control in the East Room at 11:30 a.m., the main narrative dominating the news cycle centered on the various feuds Trump had ignited on social media.
“This isn’t news, but there’s something wrong with this guy. … This is a president who is completely out of control,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who has been a major advocate for upgrading the country’s water infrastructure, told CNN on Monday. “He’s the president of the United States. He’s not some guy with a blog.”
And when Trump rolled out his aviation announcement, he first spent several minutes discussing unrelated news that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be overhauling its electronic health record system.
“Before discussing our plans to modernize air travel, I want to provide an update on efforts to fix and modernize vital services for our veterans,” Trump said, standing in front of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and other former Transportation secretaries.
Infrastructure has long been billed as one of the few issues that could receive broad bipartisan support this Congress.
But Trump’s call to separate air traffic control from the federal government is one of his more controversial infrastructure proposals, and quickly earned a stinging rebuke from Democrats at the start of the week.
“Trump’s ‘infrastructure week’ appears to be little more than a Trojan Horse for undermining workers’ wages and handing massive tax breaks to billionaires and corporations,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
“Trump’s ideas for privatizing Air Traffic Control — which recycle a tired Republican plan that both sides of the aisle have rejected — would hand control of one of our nation’s most important public assets to special interests and the big airlines.”
Trump continued with early-morning tweets on Tuesday and Wednesday that set off new firestorms: taking credit for four Arab countries’ decision to cut ties with Qatar and announcing his pick for FBI director.
Midweek, Trump was slated to continue his infrastructure pitch with a speech in Ohio aimed at emphasizing inland waterways' important role in transporting steel, coal, corn and other goods.
But slipped into the schedule, just 30 minutes before Trump’s rebuilding remarks, was a surprise speech on healthcare.
And when it came time for his infrastructure speech, Trump spent part of it assailing ObamaCare and Democrats, appearing to veer off script at several points.
“I’m calling on all Democrats — who, honestly, have really been obstructionists. Boy, have they tried, I mean, every single thing,” Trump said. “On healthcare, I won’t get one vote. ObamaCare is crashing, it’s dead, it’s in a death spiral. … They’re just obstructionists.”
The same day, the administration dispatched Chao to Capitol Hill to sell lawmakers on Trump’s air traffic control proposal. But the idea received a brutal reception from both sides of the aisle, with rural Republicans excoriating the plan.
“This is a tough sell in states like my state of Mississippi, where small airports are very concerned about where this will leave them, and I think we’re going to see this on both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
The spinoff proposal was more warmly received in the House the next day, but that hearing was completely overshadowed by Comey’s dramatic testimony.
The White House also hosted an infrastructure summit on Thursday with governors and mayors, during which Vice President Pence declared it a “banner week for infrastructure.”
But the rebuilding effort has almost seemed like an afterthought, with the concept of “infrastructure week” becoming somewhat of a punch line on Capitol Hill.
“I think this is the most exciting hearing of the day on Capitol Hill, for the record,” joked Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).
“You can tell by all the cameras here,” Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said sarcastically.
Transportation advocates acknowledged that it was always going to be a herculean task to be heard above the Comey clamor.
They also suspected that the White House purposely planned the infrastructure effort to coincide with the former FBI director’s testimony in an effort to distract from Comey’s testimony — but it didn’t seem to work.
Hale thought Trump could have made more headway if he had announced two specific transportation projects that he will include in the infrastructure package, perhaps one in a rural area and one in an urban region.
Larsen also suggested that Trump could have drawn more attention to the initiative by unveiling an actual legislative package or talking it up more on Twitter.
“I won’t be the first person to say the president needs to line up his policy focus with what he’s tweeting, because everybody else has already said it,” Larsen told The Hill.
Trump’s tweeting habits have even frustrated members of his own party, with Republicans worried that it detracts from their legislative agenda.
"I think the president could be more focused and disciplined about staying on his agenda," Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on "The Axe Files” podcast this week.
Trump will have one last chance to correct course on Friday, when infrastructure week wraps up with a final speech at the Department of Transportation to highlight roads, rails and the project approval process.
Transportation advocates will be eagerly watching.
“He has a chance to say something really big there,” Hale said.