On paper, President Trump’s schedule Tuesday looks like something drawn up by the producers of a White House reality show with a plot line that combines the president’s long-running “Chuck and Nancy” melodrama with his struggle to make any progress on rebuilding America’s infrastructure.
Trump will put no infrastructure package on the table when Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California return to the Oval Office. But neither will they, despite Democratic promises to work with Trump when possible.
In a capital now accustomed to governance by tweet and a president who spends much of his day watching Fox News, impromptu theater often is the point.
Four months ago, when “Chuck and Nancy,” as Trump calls them, were invited to the White House, political fireworks went off as the president and his guests clashed on live TV, a confrontation that soon saw the president close parts of the federal government for 35 days in an unsuccessful effort to get money for his border wall.
"When you put people with competing agendas and massive egos in a room and roll the cameras, it's bound to be nothing if not entertaining,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist in Washington. “We’ve already seen it with these three.”
Since the shutdown, Democrats have taken over House committees and launched a raft of investigations into Trump’s personal finances, his business practices, security clearances at the White House and much more, fueled in part by the release of the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Whether Trump will hide his fury about the investigations, about Democrats’ chatter about impeachment and his frustration at his failure to get money for the border wall and other priorities, is an open question. So is how to pay for an infrastructure package without raising gas taxes or other taxes.
“I don't believe there’s a snowball’s chance in hell they'll be able to work anything out on an infrastructure bill,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
“The differences are too stark and the political environment is too toxic,” he added. “The problem here is normally these things are highly scripted affairs where everyone has at least an idea of where people are coming from. But now no one knows how Trump is going to behave.”
Thus in a week when a new Avengers movie is shattering box-office records, the latest episode of the Trump-meets-Chuck-and-Nancy show could be a Washington blockbuster.
On Dec. 11, Trump and the two Democrats turned what was supposed to be a ho-hum Oval Office photo op into a combative negotiation that was captured in full by the television crews in the room. At one point, Trump said he would be “proud” to force a government shutdown if Democrats didn’t meet his demands for border wall funding.
Trump, aware his adversaries had gotten the better of the exchange, threw a binder of briefing materials as he walked out of the Oval Office. In the White House driveway, Pelosi strutted confidently toward a group of reporters and cameras with an insouciant air that made her an instant meme and her orange funnel-necked overcoat a sudden top-seller.
“In all my years in Washington, I’ve never seen a meeting go off the rails like that,” Manley said.
On Jan. 9, Trump attempted to turn the tables by walking out of another White House meeting — this time, no press was allowed in — with the two Democrats. The government shutdown, by then underway, ultimately ended without Trump securing any additional border wall funding.
This time, Trump is in a high-stakes political dogfight over Democratic attempts to subpoena his tax returns and to compel Cabinet officials and former administration aides to testify under oath before Congress.
Adding to the tension, Pelosi, who had emphasized her belief that Democrats shouldn’t pursue impeachment, stated last week that the party may “have no choice” if the facts push them in that direction.
Trump’s own vitriol toward Democrats has ratcheted up in recent days. At a rally Saturday night in Green Bay, Wis., he accused doctors who support abortion rights and mothers of “executing” babies, and he called the Mueller probe an attempted “coup” by frustrated Democrats determined to push him out of office.
Not known for turning the other cheek, Trump could explode at Democrats — but he could also deliver a plot twist of sorts by appearing open to true bipartisan collaboration.
Trump vowed during his 2016 campaign to focus on rebuilding America’s crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure, and the White House has repeatedly promised an “infrastructure week” in the past to highlight the issue. Each produced a press release or two but little of substance.
A comprehensive infrastructure package could offer a chance to burnish his own self-image as a skilled deal-maker. He could also use the meeting to put pressure on Pelosi to deliver him the votes to ratify his revamped free trade agreement for North America, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which appears to have stalled.
Similarly, for Pelosi and Schumer, finding a policy area where both parties’ interests might align could demonstrate a seriousness about governing beyond investigating the president, who has continued to portray Democrats as a mob of obstructionist resisters.
In a letter Monday, Democrats rolled out a set of three broad principles they said will be critical in finding common ground on infrastructure, signaling that they want the bulk of the funding for new road and bridge projects to come from the federal government and to include “clean energy priorities” and “buy American” provisions.
"There would have to be some significant, not very small compromises on both sides, but infrastructure is not this intractable issue like immigration,” said one former White House advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Trump “agrees with Democrats that you’ve got to spend to do the larger projects. There’s liable to be more of an impasse on some of the union and environmental requirements.”
At the White House, even an aide involved in preparing the president for Tuesday’s meeting said Monday that they could not predict what he would say or do in the moment.
As in December, Trump could try again to push Pelosi and Schumer with leverage he doesn’t have.
After stating bluntly last week that his administration is “fighting all the subpoenas,” he could inform Pelosi Tuesday that he won’t be willing to collaborate on legislative priorities until House Democrats stop investigating him.
Unlike the December showdown in the Oval Office, Trump will host Tuesday’s meeting in the Cabinet Room with more than Pelosi and Schumer. A dozen Democratic lawmakers, six from the House and six from the Senate, are planning to attend, and Trump is likely to have Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, economic advisor Larry Kudlow and Trump’s daughter Ivanka in the room.
The White House has not yet indicated whether TV cameras will be allowed in.
“I think they learned their lesson from last time,” said one Pelosi aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the game plan. “It’s time to see if Trump is serious about this. This is really his last chance to get a big infrastructure package done.”