How ‘Infrastructure Week’ Became a Long-Running Joke

WASHINGTON — At this point in the Trump presidency, “Infrastructure Week” is less a date on the calendar than it is a “Groundhog Day”-style fever dream doomed to be repeated.

Roughly two years after the White House first came up with the idea of discussing, for all of seven days, the pursuit of a bipartisan agreement to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and broadband networks, President Trump more or less torpedoed those plans on Wednesday in a Rose Garden speech. In the process, he gave Democrats a helpful sound bite when he said he would not pursue a legislative agenda while under investigation by House committees.

He also gave them another opportunity to charge that Mr. Trump, who has promised to deliver on an infrastructure plan since his first days in office, doesn’t really care about working together on one at all.

“I knew he was looking for a way out,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her fellow Democrats who had gathered in the Cabinet Room for the meeting with the president, according to two people familiar with the scene. “We were expecting this.”

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Long ago, the political and pundit class began to recognize any mention of infrastructure-themed events as a catchall joke symbolizing any substantive — if pie-in-the-sky — policy objective destined to go nowhere.

During the first Infrastructure Week, in June 2017, White House aides dutifully plugged along with topical messaging, hoping to distract from more pressing controversies, until Mr. Trump closed out a Rose Garden event by accusing James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, of committing perjury in his congressional testimony about the president’s behavior during an investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.

“Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction,” Mr. Trump said. “He’s a leaker.”

Nearly two years on, Mr. Trump has repeatedly talked about big-dollar plans to help Americans suffering from crumbling infrastructure. Though the plans Mr. Trump has agreed to have only grown more ambitious — the most recent figures put the total package at $2 trillion, doubling his campaign-era promise of $1 trillion — the president had so far avoided specifics about how he would come up with that amount of money.

Any infrastructure package faced slim-to-none odds on Capitol Hill to begin with, but for a brief moment this spring, something seemed as if it could happen. Democratic congressional leaders emerged from a meeting at the White House in April and announced the president had agreed to pursue the $2 trillion plan.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, said that there had been “good will” in the meeting and that it was “different than some of the other meetings that we’ve had.” Standing alongside Ms. Pelosi, he said the group planned to meet again in three weeks.

Then came a partisan derailment that had the makings of a disappointing “Game of Thrones” finale — if all of the characters had pledged to work together, only to let the toilets overflow in Westeros. The three-minute meeting prompted Mr. Trump’s latest noninfrastructure speech on Wednesday, in which he accused Ms. Pelosi of saying he was engaged in waylaying House investigations.

“What happened in the White House would make your jaw drop,” Mr. Schumer said — not that what happened in the Rose Garden minutes later was exactly sedate.

Instead of mentioning bridges and roads, Mr. Trump, repeating at least one theme from two years before, said that there was no collusion, and that the investigation into his campaign and his behavior was little more than a hoax. And instead of a visual that might have shown the cost of, say, repairing the nation’s interstates, Mr. Trump brought a White House-sanctioned sign, posted just under the presidential seal, titled “Mueller Investigation by the Numbers.”

The only major change in this repeat situation has been Ms. Pelosi’s role. In 2017, as the House minority leader, she called the original Infrastructure Week “little more than a Trojan horse.” But for this season’s short-lived reprisal, she returned as speaker of the House. After Wednesday’s abortive meeting, she responded by saying she would pray for the president.

Democrats may have a point when they say Mr. Trump has little interest in reaching a deal: Inside the White House, the original Infrastructure Week was never really about what was advertised, according to a person with knowledge of the original planning: It began as a public relations stunt to distract from Mr. Comey’s testimony.

In a meeting before Mr. Comey’s visit to Capitol Hill, White House aides said they would need something else to change the subject. The idea of promoting a bipartisan discussion on meeting a pressing national need as a diversion was also suggested by aides seeking to put distance between the president and several other controversies.

Those episodes included Mr. Trump’s criticism that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, was lax on combating terrorism, and an accusation that the Justice Department had produced a watered-down version of his travel plan to bar visitors from predominantly Muslim nations.

A day later, Mr. Trump stepped into the Rose Garden and accused Mr. Comey of perjury.

Infrastructure Week was born out of chaos. Now it looks as if it might die that way, too. On Wednesday, the person with knowledge of the original planning said the entire effort had “gone horribly wrong, spinning out of control.”