White House officials struggled to draw attention to the rollout of their infrastructure plan on Monday as aides continued to battle scrutiny of the circumstances surrounding a former staffer’s departure, marking at least the third time a controversy has overshadowed White House attempts to promote an infrastructure plan.
President Trump’s team spent the weekend fending off criticism of the way aides handled the resignation of former staff secretary Rob Porter last week amid allegations that he physically and verbally abused two of his ex-wives, even as the White House worked to generate interest in the infrastructure proposal officials planned to send to Congress on Monday.
After press secretary Sarah Sanders read a statement about the infrastructure plan and the president’s budget proposal on Monday, she faced nearly 30 questions about the Porter scandal and only one infrastructure-related question at the daily press briefing on Monday.
The distraction from Trump’s infrastructure plan was just the latest rocky attempt from White House aides to steer the conversation in Washington toward their proposals for rebuilding roads and bridges. In June and August, respectively, two separate tries at focusing on infrastructure fell flat amid unrelated controversies that threatened to eclipse the president’s agenda.
“There is only so much you can control in a White House,” said a former White House official. “There is always going to be competition, whether it is self-inflicted or beyond your control.”
The official noted the White House admitted on Friday that “it could have handled the Porter dismissal better,” as critics have accused senior staffers of responding slowly to the severity of the allegations against the former staff secretary.
“Having said that, the [White House] must move ahead and not let a negative story prevent the agenda from moving forward,” the official added. “Infrastructure is a big deal that is going to get traction because it has something for everybody.”
The White House first tried to roll out a plan in June with the launch of “Infrastructure Week,” which was billed as five days of events and speeches geared toward promoting Trump’s proposals for investing in projects like rural development, road repairs, and infrastructure modernization.
But former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before Congress that week dominated headlines, relegating infrastructure to a footnote after Comey accused the president of pressuring him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
During an event at Trump Tower in August that the White House staged to draw attention to infrastructure, Trump made comments about racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., that thrust his administration into a controversy and quickly eclipsed the plan he had set out to promote.
Several members of Trump’s infrastructure advisory council resigned over the course of the following week in protest of the way Trump handled the Charlottesville situation, and the fallout grew so big that the administration did not immediately return to infrastructure.
And this week, continued scrutiny of how aides responded to the resignation of Porter could threaten to pull the White House’s focus from infrastructure to yet another controversy that consumes the West Wing’s time and attention.
The legislative framework Trump unveiled on Monday asks Congress to appropriate $200 billion for infrastructure projects over the next decade in the hopes of spurring more than $1.5 trillion in total infrastructure investments during the same 10-year window.
Some of the money would be doled out as grants to states, and some would be set aside specifically for projects in rural areas.
Trump said Monday that part of his administration’s focus in pursuing an infrastructure plan would be on reducing the barriers developers may face when obtaining permits for major construction projects, thereby speeding up the process and creating more incentives for private companies to invest.
While some Republicans have praised the White House's focus on infrastructure over the past year, others have worried any plan could lead to increased government spending that adds to deficits.
Democrats have criticized Trump's approach to infrastructure because the plan would give private companies too much control over infrastructure projects and does not include enough federal spending.