Trump derails infrastructure talks with Democrats

President Donald Trump talking to the press after storming out of a meeting with Democrats over US infrastructure on Wednesday. PHOTO: NYTIMES
President Donald Trump talking to the press after storming out of a meeting with Democrats over US infrastructure on Wednesday. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Drama comes after he is accused of cover-up to evade probes into his conduct and finances

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump's dramatic decision to blow up infrastructure negotiations amid swirling talk of impeachment revealed a president willing to abandon the rest of his first-term legislative agenda for a political brawl.

Mr Trump stormed out of talks with Democrats on Wednesday, saying he would not negotiate with leaders who hours earlier had accused him of a "cover-up" to evade probes into his personal conduct and finances.

"I don't do cover-ups," the Republican President, clearly agitated, told reporters at a previously unscheduled appearance after his brief meeting with Democratic congressional leaders that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described as "very, very, very strange".

Unleashing a familiar litany of gripes about special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe and the follow-up congressional inquiries that he has been stonewalling, Mr Trump also complained that Democrats had met to discuss whether to impeach him - or, as he called it, "the I-word".

Mr Trump said: "I walked into the room and I told Senator Schumer, Speaker Pelosi, I want to do infrastructure. I want to do it more than you want to do it... But you know what? You can't do it under these circumstances. So get these phoney investigations over with."

Ms Pelosi, the top congressional Democrat, did not back down, and later pointedly mentioned the possibility of impeachment, the US Constitution's process for the House and Senate to remove a president from office.

"The fact is, in plain sight in the public domain, this President is obstructing justice and he's engaged in a cover-up - and that could be an impeachable offence," Ms Pelosi said in an event at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal Washington policy advocacy group.

 
 
 
 

The President is stonewalling congressional probes by ignoring subpoenas, refusing to let current and former advisers testify and not handing over documents in the aftermath of the April release of Mr Mueller's report that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Mr Trump's chances.

The drama - which Democrats painted as a premeditated stunt - exposed Washington's deepening personal and partisan division.

In threatening to set aside work on issues of broad concern to US citizens - including crumbling highways and skyrocketing drug prices - Mr Trump allowed his critics to say he has put his own political fortunes ahead of the nation's business. For Mr Trump, the infrastructure negotiations he abandoned offered a chance to demonstrate pragmatism and break from Republican anti-government orthodoxy.

Democrats, meanwhile, appeared eager to show they sought legislative accomplishments and not just unbending opposition to the President and his agenda. They hoped to exploit Mr Trump's affinity for big construction projects and one-on-one deal-making.

Republican Senator Susan Collins predicted Mr Trump would back down in the latest dispute. "That's not going to be a permanent decision by the President," she said. "I think he will change his mind about it because I know he wants action on drug prices, for example." But the breakdown casts doubt on shared priorities between Mr Trump and his opponents as well as critical negotiations to come.

Mr Trump is also counting on House Democrats to approve the new trade deal his team negotiated to replace Nafta - the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But the President ultimately saw greater political advantage in picking a fight.

Mr Trump's hope is that voters will attribute the breakdown of the infrastructure negotiations to Democrats, whom he has painted as obsessed with unfair investigations into his presidency at the expense of legislating.

Many rank-and-file Democrats are bristling over the administration's refusal to comply with a raft of congressional subpoenas, and Mr Trump may succeed at goading them into opening impeachment proceedings - a development that Ms Pelosi and other party leaders fear could give the President a political boost.

Wednesday's drama unfolded hours before a federal judge delivered the second court ruling this week bolstering Democrats' efforts to obtain the President's financial information. US District Judge Edgardo Ramos in New York rejected Mr Trump's request to keep Deutsche Bank and Capital One Financial Corp from handing over his financial records to lawmakers.

Mr Trump's lawyers are expected to appeal against both decisions.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2019, with the headline 'Trump derails infrastructure talks with Democrats'. Print Edition | Subscribe