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Trump to I-85 heroes: 'Who's the bravest?'

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump huddled with first responders from Atlanta's I-85 bridge collapse at the White House on Thursday, commending them for preventing any casualties following the March 30 blaze and doubling down on his pledge to greenlight more infrastructure spending.

"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 told the group of 15 officers from the Atlanta Police, the city Fire Rescue Department and the Georgia State Patrol assembled in the White House's Roosevelt Room. "Everybody was watching. Your skill and courage saved many lives and represented true strength.”

THE LATEST:  I-85 fire and bridge collapse

Trump praised Gov. Nathan Deal ("terrific guy") and pledged that "my administration stands with"Georgia." He 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 law enforcement made it to the scene 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. You will like that because it will come in under budget and on time," she told Trump.

The president responded, "That’s good. I love to hear the words 'under budget' and 'under schedule.'”

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 nighmare 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 -- Trump used the event as an opportunity to double down on 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 to be signed off on by 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.

The first responders started the roughly 30-minute meeting by presenting Trump with what appeared to be an engraved axe 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? That’s what I want to know," he said.

Read more about the I-85 bridge collapse: 

WATCH: Trump commends I-85 first responders

Kasim Reed praises first responders at City Hall ceremony

State offers $3.1 million incentive to finish I-85 bridge early

I-85 to reopen by June 15, officials say

Atlanta bridge collapse: Who is to blame?

Feds greenlight $10 million for emergency repair work after I-85 collapse

I-85 collapses after massive fire: ‘The entire bridge is compromised’ 

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.