White House

Trump’s infrastructure plan is caught in a White House turf war

National Trade Council adviser Peter Navarro, far right, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, center, await President Donald Trump's signing of three executive orders, Jan. 23, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
National Trade Council adviser Peter Navarro, far right, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, center, await President Donald Trump's signing of three executive orders, Jan. 23, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. AP

When Donald Trump and Mike Pence met this month to discuss a promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan, the Cabinet Room was filled with half a dozen billionaire executives, from Tesla’s Elon Musk to Steve Roth, a New York developer and longtime friend to the president.

One person who wasn’t there? The man who worked for months to line up priority infrastructure projects for the Trump transition team.

Just a few weeks earlier, Dan Slane had been jetting around the country — on his own dime — to meet with governors, contractors, investors, labor union officials and others eager to influence Trump’s infrastructure plan. He developed a 50-project proposal filled with exactly the kind of “shovel-ready” investments the White House wanted – the kind that needed regulatory relief, not federal dollars.

He met with Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon at the White House in late January, Slane said, to explain how he picked those projects and to walk through the plan he had created to get them started in 2017.

“Bannon loved it,” Slane said. “He asked me two or three times, ‘Will it work?’”

Bannon then connected him with other Trump team officials, and Slane briefed them for hours.

But as Trump’s attention turns to infrastructure after suffering defeat on his first policy priority, the White House will not even acknowledge Slane, except to say he has “no official or unofficial role” in the administration. He says his infrastructure plan, and indeed his very connection to the president, has become the victim of a power struggle for control of this big-ticket infrastructure agenda between Peter Navarro, a Trump loyalist and economic populist who advised his campaign, and Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs president who now runs the National Economic Council.

Navarro is a hardliner on trade who is viewed with suspicion by many economists. He wanted infrastructure as part of his portfolio at the newly formed National Trade Council. Cohn, whose appointment settled nerves among some U.S. allies and economists, argued that it should fall under his shop at the National Economic Council, Slane told McClatchy.

Cohn prevailed.

“I was part of the enemy camp,” Slane said.

And now he’s out. And so, he thinks, is the infrastructure plan built by Trump’s populist advisers based on the input of hundreds of state and local officials, just as the White House turns its attention to an agenda item that might muster some bipartisan support.

So far, the administration has released few details about how it wants to rebuild the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, railways and ports despite having Slane’s list in hand since Inauguration Day.

The infrastructure team at the National Economic Council, led by Cohn, is gathering ideas from 16 federal agencies and departments, and has reached out to every state for input on a plan that Trump has promised will be worth $1 trillion, said Lindsay Walters, deputy press secretary, in a statement.

“Together with these agencies and with leaders at the state and local levels, we have already begun the process of identifying the reforms that will help us reach that visionary goal of creating dependable and efficient facilities and resources that will last for generations,” said Walters.

Slane contends the lack of specifics is a bad sign.

“I give them zero chance of getting this done in 2017,” he said.

Grass-roots plan

Slane met Navarro through his work on the congressionally appointed U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He shares Navarro’s alarm about China’s efforts to displace the U.S. as the dominant economic power in the world. He even appeared in Navarro’s film, “Death by China.” In the movie, Slane talks about moving his lumber business to China. He says the experience awoke him to the threat China poses to the U.S.

Slane got involved in the effort to build an infrastructure priority list for Trump in October, the final month of the campaign. The assignment came from Navarro and continued during the transition. Slane expected to be appointed as deputy director of infrastructure under Navarro at National Trade Council.

He put together his plan for Navarro with China in mind, knowing that China has invested China has invested $11 trillion in its own infrastructure in the past decade.

The proposal was designed to jumpstart job creation by fast tracking the permitting process for 50 major infrastructure projects across the country.

The idea was to start with 27 of the projects that already had a revenue stream, could be privately financed and had engineering underway. The focus on private investment would enable the administration to avoid asking reluctant Republicans in Congress for taxpayer dollars up front.

Instead, Trump could accelerate permitting for those 27 projects by signing an executive order Slane drafted, with a goal of reducing the process to four months.

“The focus at the end of the day was, what can you get up and running in 2017,” said Norm Anderson, the CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a consulting firm that helped Slane narrow down the list of projects.

Anderson’s company had compiled a list of 100 top infrastructure projects with input from senior-level investors, engineers and developers. The list would have been offered to whichever presidential candidate had won in November, Anderson said.

A week after Trump’s unexpected win, Anderson found a white paper online that Navarro and now-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had written for the Trump campaign. It proposed tax credits to fund infrastructure. He emailed Navarro, and offered some suggestions.

“Navarro asked Dan to talk to me the next day,” Anderson said.

Slane, who was working without a staff, asked Anderson to help him screen a list of projects Navarro wanted for the administration. Anderson in turn hired Boston Consulting Group to analyze how many direct and indirect jobs each project would create.

The projects on the final version of the list, which Slane said he provided to the White House, included high-speed rail projects in Texas and Florida, locks and dams on the Ohio River in Kentucky and Illinois, and 30-mile-long water tunnels that would be built in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California.

A $12-billion high-speed rail system could transform transportation in the Lone Star State.

Once the White House had proven the concept and developed a track record with the first 50 projects, Slane said, the administration could go to Congress with the next 50 projects and a large request for about $200 billion.

Slane suggested the best way to determine how to allocate the funds would be for Trump to create a new U.S. Infrastructure Commission, a bipartisan panel made up of Republicans and Democrats appointed by the president. The commission would screen projects and come up with a list of projects in the national interest. Congress would have 45 days to vote yes or no on the entire list.

In addition to giving the final version of his list and draft executive order to Navarro, Slane says he also shared the documents with Bannon in a meeting at the White House in late January.

Bannon told him to come back for another meeting with DJ Gribbin, special assistant to Trump for infrastructure policy, and Jeremy Katz, deputy director of Cohn’s National Economic Council, Slane says.

He says spent two hours going over his list and draft executive order with Gribbin and Katz, and followed up with Gribbin by email, but he hasn’t heard from him since mid-February.

Walters and other White House officials would not comment about Slane or his plan, an earlier draft of which was published by McClatchy, although they didn’t dispute that he worked on the transition. Ken Nahigian, executive director of the transition team, did not reply to multiple requests for comment about Slane’s role.

The White House also declined to confirm his visits or communication with Gribbin and other administration officials. Slane shared copies of some of those emails with McClatchy, on the condition they not be published.

In one of their last exchanges in February, Slane told Gribbin he was disappointed he didn’t get the job, but he was willing to contribute however he could.

Cohn formally announced Gribbin’s and Katz’s appointments on Feb. 27.

Gribbin, a former transportation official under President George W. Bush, comes to the White House from the Australian infrastructure firm Macquarie Capital, where he helped states and municipalities secure “public-private partnerships” to finance infrastructure projects. He also worked for Koch Industries and for the engineering firm HDR.

In all, Cohn has announced more than a dozen hires; Navarro just a few.

Slane says Navarro, as an academic with little policymaking experience, was ill prepared for the fierce battles for influence that have engulfed the White House. He says Navarro and other advisers who shaped Trump’s populist campaign have had a hard time protecting their turf from establishment figures like Cohn, who are pushing more conventional policies.

Navarro did not respond to a request for comment.

Playing the liaison

Leaders at the state and local level, and executives at the National Governors Association, thought they had been working with the White House, through Slane.

Paul Aucoin, executive director of the Southern Louisiana Port, said he assumed Slane was a shoo-in for a White House infrastructure job when he met him at Anderson’s offices in Washington in December.

Aucoin made the trip to DC to promote his port and try to secure federal assistance to dredge the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The meeting with Slane had been arranged for Aucoin by the public relations firm of Gary Meltz, a former aide to Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York.

Slane introduced himself as a member of the Trump transition, and Aucoin made his pitch.

Slane promised to get the dredging project on the list he and Anderson were compiling for the transition.

“They were very receptive, they got it, they understood what I was saying, they asked all the right questions,” Aucoin said. “It wasn’t like I was talking to a wall. I was finally talking to some one who understood what I was trying to say.”

Later Slane would visit the port and meet with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. He reassured Edwards and Aucoin that congressional Republicans would pledge money to the project from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. That promise that has yet to be fulfilled.

Aucoin said he’s since hired a lobbying firm in Washington that was working on getting him a meeting with Gribbin.

“It was a blow for us to lose Dan,” Aucoin said.

Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said his organization consulted with Slane on his plan. His union delivered to the White House its own list of priority infrastructure projects in February, after meeting with Trump.

“The way Dan framed it was really good because Dan took projects that had all funding but lacked permitting or some who had permitting,” McGarvey said.

“He did a lot of thoughtful work on the initial ready-to-go, out-of-the gate stuff,” he said. “The projects that Dan was talking about really don’t require a new infrastructure bill. Those are ones that exist, that are both private and public, and have the three elements you need: the financing, the engineering, and permitting. And some of them will happen this year.”

The clock is ticking

McGarvey is more optimistic than Slane about the White House commitment to an infrastructure program.

“They’ve hired some really excellent people on this,” McGarvey said. “I have great confidence in Mr. Cohn and the team that his people have assembled in the (National Economic Council) to get the bang for their buck and help the most people.”

McClatchy asked to interview Cohn and Gribbin, the aide he appointed to shape the president’s infrastructure policy. They would not speak on the record.

Based on comments that White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made on Meet the Press earlier this month, the administration is working on an infrastructure plan to come out later in this year, after Congress deals with health care and tax reform.

“And that moves infrastructure probably to sometime around summer or early fall,” Mulvaney said.

Former President Barack Obama’s Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Trump’s team cannot afford to wait too long if it wants to notch an infrastructure win in 2017.

“If they don’t have a real, concrete infrastructure plan in place and passed by one or both houses by the end of August,” he said, “they’ve probably lost an opportunity.”

States, meanwhile, are doing what they can to meet their infrastructure needs. They’ve raised their gas and sales taxes, imposed tolls or fees on miles driven, and created infrastructure banks and public-private partnerships. LaHood said Trump’s plan should take its cues from the states.

“They’re not waiting around for the federal government,” LaHood said. “They need to get their roads fixed.”

Curtis Tate contributed to this article.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

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