WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump used what was billed as an infrastructure event on Thursday to instead deliver a politically tinged address that veered from foreign policy to Republicans’ prospects in upcoming elections to the reboot of Roseanne Barr’s sitcom.
Speaking before a crowd of union builders in Richfield, Ohio, President Trump did lay out in the broadest terms the underpinnings of his infrastructure plan, which had been announced previously.
But he reserved his most passionate language for the familiar themes of his political stump speech, including calling again for a border wall and touting accomplishments from his first year in office.
Joking about his past as a real estate developer, President Trump suggested he may have been better at his past job than the one he current holds.
“I was always very good at building. It was always my best thing. I think better than being President, I was maybe good at building,” President Trump said, garnering laughs from the audience.
The president also referenced photos he tweeted out earlier this week, which were taken in February and depicted replacement fencing at the border.
On the wall, President Trump came close to accusing Democrats of wanting drugs to come over the border.
“They want people to come in from the border and they want, I guess, want, I can’t imagine they want, but certainly drugs are pouring across borders,” he said. “We need walls. We started building our wall. I am so proud of it.”
President Trump’s speech was billed as a pivot to infrastructure to tout the economic benefits of his proposals to help rebuild and repair America’s ailing system. But the remarks focused little on their stated purpose, and appeared more similar to a President Trump campaign event than an official White House policy roll out.
No comment made that clearer than when President Trump lauded Roseanne Barr for the successful reboot of her sitcom. President Trump applauded the new show Wednesday in a phone call to Barr, who plays a President Trump supporter and is also one in real life.
“Look at Roseanne — look at her ratings,” President Trump, a man who has long been obsessed with ratings, told the crowd. “They were unbelievable. Over 18 million people. And it was about us.”
Senior White House advisers previewed the speech as a way for President Trump to push for infrastructure reform, noting that the President’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report claiming the proposal could employ as many as 414,000 additional infrastructure workers over 10 years.
“Following on the success of tax reform, infrastructure is the next piece of the President’s successful economic agenda,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday. “These workers represent the hardworking Americans across the country who will participate in the rebuilding of our nation’s infrastructure, sparked from the President’s vision, and it will definitely be worth tuning in to see the President lay out that vision.”
But President Trump spent considerably little time on the topic Thursday, instead using the speech to comment for the first time on a host of issues, like his decision on Wednesday to oust David Shulkin, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and replace him with White House physician Ronny Jackson.
President Trump said he made the move because he “wasn’t happy” with the speed of veteran care and wanted veterans to be allowed to “run to a private doctor” if they wanted.
The president also made news on international affairs, too, telling the audience that the United States will be “coming out of Syria” very soon.
“We are knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon,” President Trump said before complaining about the fact that the United States has spent considerable money in the Middle East while it is considered too costly to invest in infrastructure in the United States.
“We are going to be coming out of there real soon,” President Trump said. “We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”
The president also compared the US-Mexico border, where he has pushed for months to build a wall, to the 160-mile-long demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, suggesting that it’s unfair the United States helps to secure one border but not the other.
“Look at Korea. We have a border in Korea. We have a wall of soldiers. We don’t get paid very much for this, do we. You look at that, nobody comes through,” President Trump said. “But our own border, we don’t take care of it. Think of it.”
He added: “We spend billions of dollars in other countries maintaining their borders and we can’t maintain our borders in our own country. Is there something a little bit wrong with that? Think of it.”
The speech was a good example of why there is little optimism about the prospects of President Trump’s infrastructure proposals becoming law this year. Not only is there little appetite for any major pieces of legislation in Congress ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, but PresidentTrump appears disinterested in staying on-message at events dedicated to the topic.
If there is any movement, it won’t be in a sprawling piece of legislation President Trump once envisioned. House Speaker Paul Ryan has favored a piecemeal approach to advancing the proposals, saying it could be done in a series of bills.
A senior administration official acknowledged Wednesday that 2018 does present challenges, but said the administration is committed to tackling the issue over the long-term and said the White House believes pieces of President Trump’s proposals will pass this year.
“We will have a push, a strong push to have infrastructure done this year,” a senior administration official said. “We hope to get a big chunk done this year … and what we can’t get done this year, we’ll get done next year.”