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Trump returns to Camp David in search of a legislative agenda

President Donald Trump will host congressional leaders at Camp David this weekend to map out a legislative strategy as Republicans weigh their priorities in what is certain to be a contentious midterm election year.

Meeting at the woodsy retreat in Western Maryland — which Trump initially disparaged but has since visited a half-dozen times — the president is expected to push GOP leaders to focus on an economic agenda, including a long-awaited proposal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

Weeks after Congress approved a tax overhaul that Trump counted among his highest priorities, Republicans are at odds over their next legislative push. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he wants to tackle entitlement programs, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been cool to that idea.

Trump campaigned on investing $1 trillion in U.S. infrastructure, and there were early signs of bipartisan support for the idea. But momentum for the plan slowed this year, and the White House has sent conflicting signals on what shape it might take.

“We have a lot of things to work on, a lot of things to accomplish,” Trump said as he left the White House on Friday for Frederick County. “We're going to Camp David with a lot of the great Republican senators, and we're making America great again.”

Trump has been far more likely to jet off to his own properties on the weekends — Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach and his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. — than to visit Camp David, which was converted into a presidential retreat by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940s. Before taking office, Trump joked with reporters that the camp, nestled in the Catoctin Mountain Park north of Frederick, wasn’t his speed.

"Yeah, Camp David is very rustic, it's nice, you'd like it," he said. "You know how long you'd like it? For about 30 minutes."

But he was more positive after his first visit in June, posting on Twitter that "Camp David is a very special place, an honor to have spent the weekend there.” He returned in August, September and December.

Located about 60 miles northwest of Baltimore, the cloistered camp has often served as a setting for major talks away from the bustle of Washington. President Jimmy Carter negotiated the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel on the property in 1978. President Barack Obama — who was also the subject of speculation about his interest in the facility — held a G8 summit there in 2012.

A White House spokeswoman said this weekend’s retreat will include Vice President Mike Pence, several Republican congressional leaders, seven Cabinet members and a large contingent of senior White House staff. Though the trip has been widely known since last month, it comes after a week in which Washington was embroiled in the release of a tell-all book that exposed deep rifts within White House and prompted the president to threaten to sue its author.

An administration official said the president would be pushing the lawmakers to focus on economic issues, including infrastructure.

“It’s not the only priority,” the official said, “but it is one of his top priorities.”

Before Congress can turn to a major legislative effort like infrastructure, it must first deal with thorny issues held over from last year, including government funding, an expired children’s health program and an overdue authorization for foreign surveillance. Lawmakers are also wrestling with how to address the so-called dreamers, immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Trump ended an Obama initiative in September that protected those immigrants, allowing them to work in the country legally.

They must weigh that agenda against an increasing number of signs that Democrats may gain seats in both the House and Senate this November.

“I think it’s going to be a really important meeting,” said GOP strategist John Feehery. “You want at the start of the year to set up the strategy for the rest of the year.”

One reason Camp David may be a good choice for that effort, Feehery said: Fewer distractions. Trump is regularly approached by guests at his Florida and New Jersey properties and the tighter protocols that have been imposed by White House chief of staff John F. Kelly are often relaxed.

“There’s not a lot of other things to do there,” Feehery said of Camp David.

That’s especially true in the middle of winter. Wind chill values are forecast far below zero on Saturday in Thurmont, just outside the park.

Presidents have varied widely in their embrace of the camp. Carter reportedly almost sold the property before using it as the setting for the Middle East talks between Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a highlight of his presidency. President George W. Bush often spent Christmas there.

“Each one of them is different,” said John Kinnaird, the mayor of Thurmont. “It depends on their personality.”

Kinnaird said he doesn’t believe the town experiences a great financial impact during a presidential visit, though he said aides and members of the president’s security detail sometimes rely on hotel rooms and local gas stations. Still, he said, “it’s nice to see him using the facility.”

Kinnaird, who said he’s been to the camp’s front gates a few times but has never entered, said he hoped Trump had changed his initial impression of the place.

“I think once he got up there he probably appreciated the ability to lead a couple of normal days without people breathing down his neck,” he said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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