‘Builder President’ Trump Reinvents Role First Taken By … George Washington

President Donald Trump’s plans to boost infrastructure development may be one of the best kept secrets in Washington, but the chief executive said Americans should have no doubts about his ability to oversee massive projects.

“I’m the builder president—remember that—so I understand this stuff,” Trump said during a recent trip to storm-struck Texas.

Trump speaks with a hard hat (Getty Images)

Trump made his proclamation while describing construction techniques that might have minimized the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. As the president described it, improved building materials might have kept water from flooding many homes.

But Trump is having a harder time finalizing a more ambitious proposal to boost investment in the nation’s highways, bridges, airports, rail, and water systems. Lawmakers recently briefed on the new president’s efforts said a viable plan is still months away and there remains uncertainty over how he plans to pay for it.

Trump, however, isn’t the first president to push an ambitious infrastructure agenda at the very start of his administration, nor is he the first to want to lend his personal experience to projects. 

The nation’s first public works project was actually overseen by President George Washington, who worked with the 1st Congress to authorize more than $17,500 in funding for the Cape Henry Lighthouse that would stand guard at the Virginia entrance of the Chesapeake Bay. 

The money for the tower of power of those times was approved less than six months into the first session of that Congress, during the highly productive summer of 1789 that also saw the creation of the Department of War.

Historians say Washington personally reviewed the bids for the project in January of 1791 and chose a New York bricklayer as contractor. The Virginia stone used in the project was the same as that used to build Washington’s home of Mount Vernon, the White House, and the U.S. Capitol. The project got underway on Aug. 1 of that year and the lighthouse began its service in the fall of 1792.

Cape Henry lighthouse (Getty Images)

More than 200 years later, the 90-foot tower continues to stand in the same spot, now part of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek—Fort Story, a prime training environment for the military’s amphibious operations.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and other Republicans recently briefed by the White House said they don’t expect to even see Trump’s proposal this year. But the president can take heart in knowing that even Washington’s public works project was many years in the making—almost 80. It was first proposed by Virginia’s governor in 1720 but repeatedly blocked when Maryland refused to help pay for it. 

Later the British government opposed a plan to impose an export tax to pay for the project, claiming it would infringe on the tobacco trade. And the American Revolution put the project on the backburner for years. 

The lesson? No matter the times, any plan that’s going to succeed has to provide sound financing, attract buy-in from a broad coalition of stakeholders, and spread the largesse widely. And the president who proposes it needs to strike early in his term when he has maximum political capital—and no distracting foreign policy crisis.