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View from Washington: Trump's infrastructure plan is crumbling

The chief advisor for the President's flagship policy is to quit amid mounting bi-partisan political opposition.

It was supposed to be the easiest win. As a candidate, Donald Trump campaigned hard on his determination to fix the US’s decaying infrastructure. He was Don the Builder. He’d literally grown up in the construction industry, erecting a global real-estate business on top of his father’s New York housing empire. He knew the big players. He knew the ‘art of the deal’.

Even before formally launching his campaign, Trump was Tweeting: “The only one to fix the infrastructure of our country is me - roads, airports, bridges. I know how to build, pols only know how to talk!”

Today though, President Trump’s infrastructure plan, one of the tentpoles of his administration, appears to be in serious political jeopardy.

In the latest blow, Trump’s chief infrastructure policy advisor, DJ Gribbin, announced yesterday (April 3) that he is following his immediate boss, chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, out of the White House to “pursue other opportunities”.

It is less than two months since Gribbin unveiled the plan alongside Trump, and just six days since Trump sought to reinvigorate its proposals at a themed-but-ultimately-rambling speech in Ohio (two words: Stormy Daniels).

As yet another departure from an increasingly chaotic administration, Gribbin’s is hardly as high-profile as those of, for example, Cohn, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, national security advisors HR McMaster and Michael Flynn, or senior strategist Steve Bannon. But his background and experience were seen as critical to the infrastructure programme.

As it stands, Trump’s plan is based on offering up to $200bn in federal funding to seed total national expenditure of $1.5tn. Part of this gap would be bridged at state level directly (via taxes and bonds), but it has also long been intended that public-private partnerships (PPPs) would play a major role. Over the course of a pre-White House career at Macquarie Capital, Gribbin established himself as a leading PPP specialist.

However, since the plan’s unveiling in February, Democrat and Republican politicians have raised concerns over PPP’s reliability as a source of funds. To some extent, this shows how bad luck has dogged Trump’s infrastructure programme as much as anything else. After earlier delays, the infrastructure launch still happened to coincide with the collapse of UK PPP specialist Carillion. Such a high-profile corporate failure did not go unnoticed across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, Congress’s February decision to raise the budget cap on federal military and domestic spending by $140bn a year has raised questions over what will remain in Washington’s coffers to fund any kind of infrastructure investment, should Trump’s legislation move forward.

The Republican majority has already allocated a huge chunk of those extra funds to the armed forces while not making cuts in other areas suggested by the White House. It is wary of further large-scale spending commitments.

Meanwhile, Democrats argue that Trump’s proposed $200bn goes nowhere near far enough anyway. But they can only reasonably hope to raise the federal contribution should they take control of both houses of Congress after this autumn’s mid-term elections. That is by no means a foregone conclusion. And many Democrats now think the cupboard is bare too.

Gribbin may simply have come to see his efforts trapped in a hopeless deadlock, regardless of whatever else he might or might not have come to think about the working atmosphere in the West Wing. And who could blame him?

Either way, Trump has been forced to acknowledge that this can must be kicked down the road, hopefully avoiding any other political potholes. When he finally stumbled back on topic in Ohio, he admitted that substantial legislative progress on infrastructure is unlikely before the mid-terms. Ironically, he may even be calculating that significant Democrat victories are what’s needed to loosen the purse strings.

But this is all a long way from Trump's original pledge to make infrastructure a core part of his inaugural "100-day action plan". After Gribbin's departure, even 1,000 days may now be pushing it.

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