President Donald Trump huddled Thursday at the White House with first responders from Atlanta’s I-85 bridge collapse, commending them for preventing any casualties following the March 30 blaze that claimed an elevated portion of the highway near Buckhead. He also repeated previous pledges to greenlight more money for infrastructure spending and law enforcement.
“Georgia state police and Atlanta police took fast action to get motorists away from danger. Then our great firefighters battled 40-foot flames, which was incredible,” Trump said, reading from a sheet of paper. “Everybody was watching. Your skill and courage saved many lives and represented true strength.”
The president met for about 20 minutes in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with 15 officers from the Atlanta Police Department, the city’s Fire Rescue Department and the Georgia State Patrol before giving the group a tour of the Oval Office.
Trump praised Gov. Nathan Deal’s response in the aftermath of the bridge’s collapse — the Republican almost immediately declared a state of emergency in Fulton County in order to access federal funding and soon after spoke with the president. Trump said his “administration stands with” Georgia and its law enforcement.
“The police, the firefighters, the first responders, you will always have the support of President Trump,” he said.
Trump also saluted his own administration for quickly greenlighting $10 million for repair work.
“I approved it literally the day that it happened. I had a feeling you’d need a little bit of money,” the president said, prompting chuckles from the room.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who sat in on Thursday’s meeting, touted how quickly first responders made it to the scene on the day of the fire, as well as the pace of the rebuilding effort.
“The good story following all of this is also that the repair and recovery of this whole scene will occur very quickly,” she told Trump. “You will like that because it will come in under budget and on time.”
The president responded: “That’s good. I love to hear the words ‘under budget’ and ‘under schedule.’ ”
The Georgia Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced that the contractor rebuilding the bridge, C.W. Matthews, could earn up to $3.1 million extra for completing work early as nightmare levels of traffic clogs the area. GDOT estimates that the stretch of road will be reopened by June 15.
Even though the bridge collapse is not attributed to infrastructure failure — a 39-year-old man has been charged with arson, setting afire surplus construction materials that had been stashed under the bridge — Trump used the event as an opportunity to highlight his campaign pledge of securing $1 trillion in new funding for infrastructure.
“What happened in Atlanta is a painful reminder of the critical importance of infrastructure,” he said. “We’re going to be doing a lot with infrastructure. You’ll be seeing it over the coming weeks, a tremendous amount.”
Any new federal dollars would need the approval of Congress, which makes his request a tall order. Democrats are wary of giving Trump such a major policy victory, and many Republicans have previously dismissed other large spending proposals that weren’t paid for through equal cuts.
As the meeting began, the group presented Trump with an engraved firefighter’s ax decorated with red tassels.
“It’s not only a great day for the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department, but it’s a great day for all the public safety personnel throughout the country. … We really appreciate the opportunity that you’re recognizing public safety members,” Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Joel Baker later told Trump.
After members of the group took turns introducing themselves, Trump fired off a few jokes.
“So, who’s the bravest person in this room?” he asked. “That’s what I want to know.”
Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Assistant Chief of Atlanta Police Rodney Bryant recounted the scene on I-85 after the fire began. He attributed the lack of casualties to the teamwork of the Police Department, Fire and Rescue Department and State Patrol and backup provided by the city and the White House.
“On that particular day, our professionalism came forward, and we were able to endure all that we were encountering (to) go home safe,” he said. “It’s with the support of this administration as well as the administration of our city that would allow something of that nature to take place.”