How lawmakers convinced Trump to reverse Great Lakes funding cut

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a rally.

Grand Rapids — For the second time in less than a year, Michigan congressional Republicans used an exclusive car ride with President Donald Trump to convince him of the need to fund a top state priority.

Trump punctuated his Thursday night re-election campaign rally in Grand Rapids with what he called “breaking news." The first-term Republican announced he would abandon his repeated attempts to cut funding for a popular Great Lakes cleanup program.

He did so after traveling from the Gerald R. Ford International Airport to Van Andel Arena with U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland, John Moolenaar of Midland and Jack Bergman of Watersmeet. 

During the drive, which takes about 20 minutes via highways, the lawmakers pitched him not only on the policy, but the chance to make a news splash at his Michigan rally.

A year ago, Bergman and Moolenaar, along with Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden, were also part of a contingent last April that convinced Trump to back a long-discussed Soo Locks modernization project during a similar car ride to a Washington Township rally — the president’s last trip to Michigan.

“Bergman was saying, 'two for two,'” Huizenga said after Trump’s raucous Thursday night rally.

“It’s rare that you have concentrated time like that. There’s no handlers. I mean, it’s the four of us in the backseat.”

For the third time in as many years, Trump had proposed a budget that would have slashed funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The cleanup program's funding is used to toward fighting invasive species, cleaning up pollution and toxic substances, and restoring habitats and species in the lakes. 

The president’s latest plan, unveiled this month, would have slashed funding for the program 90 percent from $300 million to $30 million.

The $270 million cut drew the ire of Republicans and Democrats alike from Great Lakes states, who had fought similar attempts in past years and had successfully restored full funding for the initiative in spending bills that Trump ultimately signed.

Huizenga said lawmakers used the car ride to lay out “evidence” for the effectiveness of the program. They told the president it was not only important in Michigan, but other Midwest states that Trump is targeting in his re-election bid, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which also receive watershed cleanup funding through the initiative.

“All three of us just kind of drilled in on that… and I think it was Jack who said, ‘You know Mr. President, you could make some real news today with this.' And in fact, that was the line he ended up using," Huizenga told The Detroit News.

Thirty minutes into his speech, Trump pointed to Huizenga, Bergman and Moolenaar.

“In honor of those guys, and some of your other representatives and all that we think are fantastic, we have some breaking news,” Trump told a raucous crowd clad in stars, stripes and Make America Great Again hats. “Can you handle it?”

Trump then claimed he has “always” supported the Great Lakes, despite his repeated attempts to cut funding for the cleanup program.

“They are beautiful,” Trump said of the Great Lakes. “They are big. Very deep. Record deepness, right? And I am going to get, in honor of my friends, full funding of $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which you’ve been trying to get for over 30 years.”

The crowd cheered heartily, but U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat and chief deputy whip of the House Democratic caucus, questioned Trump’s claim of steadfast support for the Great Lakes.

“The president claiming to support the Great Lakes is like an arsonist congratulating themselves for putting out a fire they started," Kildee said in a Friday statement, adding that "the president should read his own budget, which for three years in a row has nearly eliminated funding" for the initiative.

"Campaign promises are cheap — I welcome the president’s change of heart, but the Trump administration should have never cut Great Lakes funding in the first place.”

The Great Lakes initiative has received $300 million annually since Fiscal Year 2014, according to the intiative's website. From 2011 to 2012, during the Obama administration, the cleanup program received a few hundred thousand dollars less than $300 million and got $283.5 million in 2013.

The initiative once actually received more than $300 million — $475 million in 2010. 

Earlier Thursday, Trump also backed off controversial plans to eliminate federal funding for the Special Olympics — a plan that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of Michigan had defended publicly for three days before the president’s reversal. DeVos then said in a statement that she had been fighting behind the scenes to restore the Special Olympics money.

Experts consider Lake Baikal in Russian Siberia as the deepest lake in the world, and Crater Lake in Oregon as the deepest in the United States. Lake Superior, the deepest of the Great Lakes, is considered the 37th deepest lake in the world.

Moolenaar, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and helped restore Great Lakes program funding each of the past two years, said he “will do everything I can to make sure the committee follows through on this new commitment from President Trump to fully fund the GLRI and help protect the Great Lakes for future generations.”

Trump’s proposed budget cut was unlikely to happen. Bipartisan lawmakers, including Michigan Democrats, had banded together to reverse the same proposed cuts in previous budget cycles.

“After President Trump’s last three budgets gutted funding for the Great Lakes, thousands in Michigan stood up and their voices were heard," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in a Friday statement.

"President Trump’s actions need to speak louder than words. I call on him to work across the aisle to restore every penny of funding he proposed to cut.”

The president’s announcement “removes a pinch point” in ongoing budget negotiations, Huizenga said Thursday night.

“We highly suspect that we would have won this in the House and in the Senate — we have the last couple years — but you have to go through the effort of battling it out,” he said.

“And if (Trump) can say, we’re good to go on this, let’s move on to other issues.”

Huizenga and Mitchell both told The News they had previously reached out to former White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, now the president’s chief of staff, about the Great Lakes cleanup funds.

"They zeroed it out the previous two years. They've done that repeatedly. I had a frank conversation with Mick Mulvaney to say: ‘OK, sure. You do that. We’ll put it back,'" Mitchell said earlier Thursday.

"And we will put it back because $300 million is not excessive to preserve and restore the wetlands and ecosystem of the Great Lakes."

Huizenga said, “We had crossed swords politically on that, even though Mick’s a pretty good friend, and we had won out in previous years.” 

But it was the car ride — and a private audience with the president — that tipped the scales this time around.