Donald Trump’s sit-down interview with The New York Times on Wednesday mostly gained attention because of the president’s evidence-free assertion that he believes former Obama administration National Security Adviser Susan Rice committed a crime by asking for the identities of some Trump associates who were caught up in intelligence monitoring and his decision to defend Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in the face of multiple sexual assault settlements.
However, the interview was fascinating for another reason, too. The Times sent two extremely experienced reporters, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, to talk to Trump about his plans to revamp the nation’s infrastructure, something the president campaigned on and even added to his inaugural address, promising, “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
But despite multiple attempts to get the president to provide some details about his intentions, Haberman and Thrush came away with virtually nothing.
Haberman began by asking Trump to provide the “broad outlooks” of the plan.
Trump: We want to do a great infrastructure plan, and on that side, I will say that we’re going to have, I believe, tremendous Democrat support. We are also going to have some good Republican support, and I think it’s going to be one of the very bipartisan bills and it’s going to happen. I may put it in with health care.
TRUMP: Yeah. I may put it in with something else because it’s a very popular thing. We’ve spent $6 trillion in the Middle East, as of two months ago. Uh, $6 trillion. And yet we can’t fix our own roads and our own highways. And our bridges, which are, in many cases, in very bad shape. And we’re going to have a very big infrastructure plan. And bill. And it’s going to come soon. And I think we’ll have support from Democrats and Republicans.
The interview would go on this way at length, with the Times reporters pressing Trump for details and getting back a stream of adjectives (Great! Tremendous!) offering no actual detail before veering wildly away from the actual topic at hand.
Here’s what happened when Thrush then Haberman, after being told that Trump was considering an “acceleration” of the infrastructure plan, asked for details about the timing.
HABERMAN: What’s your time frame, at this point, that you’re looking at as an accelerated?
TRUMP: Well, we’re working — you know when people said, when you guys, because you know we have a very solid administration. We have some very, very good people. This man was the president of Goldman Sachs. I mean, he was, like, the president of Goldman Sachs.
For reasons that are unclear -- other than perhaps a reluctance or inability to actually answer the question, Trump was directing attention to one of his top advisers, former investment banker Gary Cohn. The conversation never made it back to timing.
Then there was the question of money. Trump always refers to the infrastructure proposal as a “trillion dollar” plan but has never really explained where that money will come from or how it will be directed. Some guidance coming from the administration suggests that the idea is to offer a few hundred billions of dollars in tax credits in order to stimulate $1 trillion in private sector investment.
Thrush tried to pin Trump down on an actual number. Once:
THRUSH: We’ve heard some outlines in the press — how much public money versus tax credits are we talking about?
TRUMP: We may go public/private on some deals. We’re going to do a very big — you know, the money that was squandered by the past administrations. Squandered on airplane routing systems that don’t work. That, you know — what would you call the actual system itself?
THRUSH: Well, how much money in total? There are numbers that have been floating around. It’s two to three hundred billion over 10 years of federal aid.
TRUMP: No. More than that. Much more than that.
THRUSH: How much more?
TRUMP: We’re talking about a trillion-dollar infrastructure.
THRUSH: But I mean, in terms of actual —
TRUMP: We may take that trillion, and we may also, in addition, use public/private. But we’re talking about an investment of a trillion dollars.
THRUSH: Can we bookmark that for one second? I just want to ask you about — O.K. Tax credits versus actual money on the table, federal money. You say a trillion total. The estimates out there are two to three hundred billion in federal expenditures as opposed to tax credits. Are those numbers accurate? Give me a general account.
TRUMP: Nothing is accurate now because we haven’t made a final determination. We haven’t made a determination as to public/private. There are some things that work very nicely public/private. There are some things that don’t. The federal government, we’re doing very well you saw, a lot of good numbers coming out. You saw our imports. You saw what happened with China. And various other people that this country has been dealing with over the years. You saw the numbers come out today, they’re very promising. Lots of good numbers are coming out. We are borrowing very inexpensively. When you can borrow so inexpensively, you don’t have to do the public/private thing. Because public/private can be very expensive. When you go equity, when you give equity to people who own your highways essentially for a 30-year period, who own your tollbooths for a period of time — come on in, Mike! You know Mike and Reince?
And came away empty at each attempt.
Likewise, Trump wouldn’t name a single project that he would consider a “signature” element of the infrastructure plan. Nor would he touch the question of whether the plan would seek to avoid the federal law requiring federal contractors pay workers the prevailing local wage for the kind of work they are doing.
Could he give them a hint? Haberman asked.
“No,” Trump replied, as the interview ended. “It’s an important question, actually. It’s going to be good.”