President Donald Trump tried repeatedly to gut funding for a wide-ranging Great Lakes cleanup, only to be stymied by Congress. Suddenly, he did an about-face.
It happened Thursday during a campaign-style speech in the battleground state of Michigan. For years, the program the Obama administration established in 2010 enjoyed bipartisan support, and Trump — who proposed a 90 percent cut just three weeks ago — toyed with the crowd before revealing his belated advocacy.
"We have some breaking news," Trump told cheering supporters in Grand Rapids. "You ready? I don't know. Can you handle it? I don't think you can handle it.
"I support the Great Lakes. Always have. They are beautiful. They are big, very deep, record deepness, right? And I'm going to get, in honor of my friends, full funding of $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative."
Trump's apparent change of heart occurred the same day he reversed his budget's call to slash $17.6 million in funding for the Special Olympics, roughly 10 percent of the organization's revenue, in the face of withering criticism on Capitol Hill.
The moves illustrate that, even as his annual spending plans seek draconian reductions in many areas, Trump is uncomfortable as a budget cutter and readily backtracks when popular programs are at stake. Such concessions might annoy fiscal conservatives, but they deprive the president's foes of ammunition as he gears up for his re-election bid.
Democrats and environmentalists in the Great Lakes region, which includes fiercely contested states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Trump carried in 2016, were skeptical that his conversion on the restoration initiative was more than a momentary gesture to draw applause at his rally.
"President Trump's actions need to speak louder than words," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who co-chairs the Senate Great Lakes Task Force. "I call on him to work across the aisle to restore every penny of funding he proposed to cut."
In a statement, the White House said Trump "trusts his agencies and staff to implement his goals and visions, but when specific issues, like the Great Lakes restoration, are presented to him he has every right to take a different approach."
As he prepared to announce his backing for the funds during the speech, Trump called the names of the GOP lawmakers who had lobbied for the program during a roughly 20-minute car ride with Trump from the Grand Rapids airport to the rally: Reps. Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar and Jack Bergman of Michigan.
In a phone interview Friday, Huizenga told The Associated Press the trio had pushed hard.
"It was a good, old-fashioned ganging up on," Huizenga said. "People who aren't from the Great Lakes don't have an understanding of what the entire system is about. It can be hard to get them to wrap their heads around it. We sort of laid out the case, both the economy and the ecology of it."
Trump asked questions about some of the projects, including a battle to prevent invasive Asian carp from reaching the lakes. Huizenga said he pitched the program as in keeping with the president's desire to restore U.S. manufacturing and the Midwestern economy.
At one point, Bergman said, "Mr. President, if you want to make news, this is one of the ways to make news in Michigan," according to Huizenga.
He said Trump made no commitment during the ride. But the message obviously had gotten through.
Does this mean the Great Lakes program is no longer in danger?
"I think you take it year by year," Huizenga said. "But it certainly makes it harder for them to go back and remove it out of the budget in future years."
The Great Lakes initiative is the biggest of nearly a dozen regional water restorations that Trump has sought to strip of funding. Among them are programs benefiting Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay.
The president's announcement Thursday offered them no reprieve, to the chagrin of William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His group supports a program that has funded research and cleanups in the nation's biggest estuary. Trump's budget requested $7.3 million for 2020, a 90 percent cut from $73 million this year.
"For the president to fund one national treasure's future and not the other makes no sense to us," Baker said. "We invite the president to come see the Chesapeake Bay first-hand and hopefully make the same decision for clean water here as he did for the Great Lakes."