Trump critics seize on developer ties to infrastructure plan
President Donald Trump’s critics are already lining up to undercut his infrastructure proposal — the purported bipartisan centerpiece of Tuesday’s State of the Union speech — as a giveaway to his well-connected friends and a rollback of popular environmental protections.
Even before the president formally calls for a deal to help rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure, a watchdog nonprofit stocked with former Democratic aides is ramping up a campaign to discredit his plan as “a blueprint for cronyism.”
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The group Democracy Forward will release a report Tuesday that alleges potential conflicts of interest on Trump’s infrastructure advisory council, which was disbanded last summer. The board was led by two of Trump’s longtime New York developer allies, Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth, who were tapped to help shape his plan to shore up roads and bridges by leveraging public money with private investors’ involvement.
Among the potential minefields the group singles out are lobbying by LeFrak’s company against flood risk regulations that the Trump administration axed last year and the prospect that Roth’s company would benefit from a public-private partnership in the works to build a new Penn Station in New York City.
The Transportation Department and LeFrak’s company did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for Roth said he "has not been commenting on all matters related to the administration."
The report highlights the key role the Trump administration gave to the private sector figures in shaping its infrastructure plan — in addition to showing how bitterly partisan the infrastructure debate has become. The conflicts, it alleges, are political as well as financial.
One email chain, obtained by the group through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with POLITICO, features an exchange between Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and LeFrak and Roth. Chao begins by forwarding a story about how the Trump administration was not “showing much love” for a massive New York development project backed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The story, by The Weekly Standard, also noted that Schumer had voted against Chao’s confirmation, even though she is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The vote set tongues wagging in the Capitol, and prompted McConnell to ask Schumer on the Senate floor afterward whether he had "any transportation projects up in New York?" (GOP aides later said the remark was more lighthearted than a direct jab.)
“Thank you for sharing. You are doing great … stick to your guns,” Roth replied to Chao, an apparent reference to the Trump administration’s resistance to the Schumer-backed project, a $13 billion bridge and tunnel rebuild known as Gateway.
The Transportation Department declined to comment directly on the email chain. It noted that members of the infrastructure council were never officially announced.
"We look forward to discussing the administration’s infrastructure initiative with Congress and the American people in the coming weeks," a department spokesperson said by email.
Democracy Forward’s report goes on to raise other potential conflicts of interest involving members of the now-disbanded infrastructure council, which it contends exerted critical influence by shaping the administration’s policy early. The group’s policy director, Corey Ciorciari, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, vowed that Trump’s infrastructure pitch would prove politically toxic in the end.
"What the American people will see is an infrastructure plan designed in secret by a council endowed with more power than Dick Cheney’s infamous and self-enriching Energy Task Force,” Ciorciari said.
The group’s efforts, conducted with the environmental group Food & Water Watch, are set to include legal actions aimed at the involvement of foreign entities as well as presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner in the crafting of the administration’s infrastructure policy.
It’s not the only pre-emptive strike against Trump’s infrastructure plan. Another came on Sunday from Center for American Progress, long considered a Democratic executive-branch-in-waiting during times of GOP control. While White House legislative director Marc Short told Fox News on Sunday that the infrastructure plan would not "gut" the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, the administration is likely to propose permitting changes that would affect existing environmental rules.
The administration is signaling that it’s "not going to put in any real money here, so the only thing [it] can do is go after the environmental deregulation side," said Christy Goldfuss, vice president of energy and environmental policy at CAP.
Despite the already sharp discord over the infrastructure plan, some Democrats facing reelection this fall in states that Trump carried are still eyeing the issue as an opportunity for the bipartisan dealmaking that has so far eluded the president.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in an interview that he brought up infrastructure during a visit to the White House last week with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), adding that "hopefully, it’ll be something that we’re going to come together on."
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) warned "that a lot of the public-private" partnerships the administration had initially proposed are unlikely to make sense for rural areas like in his own state.
“But, that aside," Tester said, "we certainly need an investment in infrastructure in this country. And I’m hoping we can get together and get something done."
January 30, 2018 at 06:18AMNo tags for this post.