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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

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

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