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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Donald Trump wants to rebuild America’s infrastructure the same way he built his buildings: debt, debt and more debt. His then-economic adviser, Gary Cohn, learned this the hard way in a fraught meeting last year, the details of which haven’t been previously reported.

What happened: As Cohn and his team were putting together their $1.5 trillion infrastructure package, Cohn tried to use a real estate analogy to sell Trump on his plan to pair public and private investment. It backfired.

  • The Cohn plan proposed leveraging $200 billion of federal investment into a $1.5 trillion overall infrastructure package — with state and local governments and the private sector making up the difference.

Trump was skeptical. Instead, he just wanted the federal government to borrow tons of money for infrastructure projects. He was especially obsessed with overhauling his hometown airport LaGuardia, which he calls "Third World."

  • The President horrified some Republicans in an October 2017 meeting with members of Congress at the White House when he told the Democrats that he liked their plan of massive public investment in infrastructure, according to a source in the room.
  • "We've just gotta spend money on this," Trump said, according to the source.
  • "He wants to govern like Robert Moses, but Republicans won't let him," the source added, referring to the titanic public official known as the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York City.

In a separate conversation, Cohn tried to win Trump over with a real estate analogy, according to two sources familiar with their conversation. "Think about when you're putting up a building, you put down $50 million of your own money to leverage several hundred million," Cohn told Trump.

  • The president scoffed. He told Cohn that when he was building, he'd never be so stupid as to put down his own money. He'd borrow the first installment from one bank and borrow the rest from another bank.
  • Cohn told associates afterwards that he'd never have supported such an idea when he worked at Goldman Sachs. "I'm a 30% equity guy," Cohn told associates after the conversation. "He [Trump] is 100% leverage."

Why this matters: During his career as a real estate magnate, Trump proudly called himself the "King of Debt." Now, he's the President of Debt — stimulating the economy by slashing taxes and jacking up defense spending without doing anything serious to rein in entitlement spending.

  • A source familiar with Trump's private conversations with Republican members tells me it's going too far to say he doesn't care at all about debt. "When he talks to [Rep. Mark] Meadows and Freedom Caucus members, he's very sensitive to the sense that we're accumulating as much debt as the Obama years," the source said.
  • But the proof is in the numbers: Under Trump, the U.S national debt has passed the $21 trillion mark.

What's next? Senior administration officials tell me Trump is still dead keen on passing a massive infrastructure bill. He likes the sound of big round numbers: A $1 trillion package is music to his ears. If Democrats win the House in November, it's more than possible Trump will defy his own party and favor Sen. Elizabeth Warren's approach of heavy federal borrowing over private investment.

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 7 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker

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