Trump Shifts Gears on Infrastructure, Demanding Trade Come First

WASHINGTON — President Trump effectively blew up negotiations with Democratic leaders over a plan to rebuild the nation’s highways, airports and other infrastructure on Tuesday night, insisting that they put the idea aside until Congress approves a new trade pact with Mexico and Canada.

The surprise demand came on the eve of a White House meeting scheduled for Wednesday at which Mr. Trump was to host Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, to discuss a construction package he has targeted at as high as $2 trillion.

“Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular U.S.M.C.A. trade deal,” Mr. Trump wrote in a letter to Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer, using the initials for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. “Once Congress has passed U.S.M.C.A.,” he added, “we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package.”

The president’s abrupt shift came only three weeks after he agreed with Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer to pursue an ambitious rebuilding plan that, if approved, would be the most significant bipartisan achievement of his presidency. Republicans and Democrats have agreed for years that the country’s bridges, railroads, broadband and other structures are badly fraying and in need of repair and improvement.

But the atmosphere, already toxic with partisan conflict, has turned even more sour in recent days as the White House and Congress escalate their battle over testimony and documents demanded by House Democrats as part of various investigations into the president and his associates.

Ms. Pelosi was scheduled to hold a meeting of her Democratic caucus at 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss rising demands among her members to pursue impeachment against Mr. Trump. It did not go unnoticed in the West Wing that she would be coming from that meeting to the White House for the 11:15 a.m. session with the president.

Mr. Trump has said for months that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do business with Democrats on important legislation if they persisted in their strategy of investigating him on multiple fronts. While he did not mention impeachment in the letter sent Tuesday night, it could be interpreted as a warning shot that substantive agreements even in areas of mutual interest could be ruined by continuing conflict over subpoenas and tax returns.

Democrats, who have said they could work with Mr. Trump on legislation even while investigating him, were flabbergasted by the letter, but Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer later issued a statement that made no mention of his trade demand and instead seemed to hint that the president might be delaying because he cannot come up with a politically palatable financing plan.

“We look forward to hearing the president’s plan for how to pay for this package,” they said in the statement.

Mr. Trump, in the letter, did not rule out working on infrastructure and said he still hoped to discuss the topic with Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer on Wednesday, urging them to bring specific priorities to the meeting. And he chided them for canceling a meeting of their aides to discuss the matter. “Nevertheless, I remain committed to passing an infrastructure bill,” he wrote.

But by prioritizing the trade agreement, he essentially put infrastructure on the back burner because there is no momentum to pass the deal with Mexico and Canada at the moment. Mr. Trump signed the agreement with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts in November, and yet, six months later, there has not been a single vote on it on Capitol Hill.

“This path-breaking deal, already agreed to by the governments of Canada and Mexico, will boost employment growth and create millions of high-wage jobs,” he wrote. “It will benefit farmers, manufacturing workers, unions and businesses throughout our great nation.”

The agreement updates the North American Free Trade Agreement, first brokered in the 1990s but long derided by Mr. Trump as a bad deal for the United States. The president faces a challenge in convincing skeptics in Congress on both the right and the left that his version represents enough of an improvement.

Some pro-trade lawmakers complain that the revised agreement puts too many limits on the free flow of goods and services across borders, while trade skeptics maintain that it does not do enough to safeguard American jobs, encourage higher wages and protect the environment.

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