CEOs take front-seat role driving policy
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During an Oval Office meeting with Donald Trump just days after his inauguration, the CEOs of the nation’s three biggest automakers urged the new president to rethink the Obama administration’s strict pollution limits for vehicles.
“I think he’s going to be good for our industry,” Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields told attendees at an auto industry conference soon after the meeting, adding later, “As an industry, we have a seat at the table.”
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Fields was right. According to people briefed on the matter, the White House leaned heavily on top auto industry officials as it mapped out a strategy for dealing with Obama’s fuel economy rules, which would mandate that the nation’s fleet of new vehicles get more than 50 miles per gallon on average by 2025.
Less than two months after the Oval Office meeting, the automakers got their way. During a speech in Detroit, Trump directed the EPA to reconsider the Obama administration’s conclusion that automakers are capable of meeting the fuel economy standards, taking the first step toward potentially weakening the rules.
Since taking office, Trump and his top advisers have met with dozens of industry and business officials, giving the executives an unparalleled opportunity to influence the president’s nascent policy agenda. So far, Trump’s policies neatly align with industry priorities on everything from approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline to rolling back financial regulations to moving the country’s air traffic control operations out of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Trump administration is poised to give the business community even more influence through its new “White House Office of American Innovation,” which will work with dozens of corporate executives to come up with ideas to reorganize the federal government.
Increasingly, career staff at federal agencies are being left out of policy discussions amid simmering distrust between Trump’s advisers and the thousands of bureaucrats stationed across the government.
EPA’s transportation experts were sidelined during the internal discussion about reopening Obama’s fuel economy standards, infuriating staffers who had worked on the issue for years, according to two people familiar with the issue. And Trump’s political appointees did not consult with State Department officials before the president issued a January memo calling for a Keystone approval.
Trump often asks CEOs during private conversations to list the federal regulations they would most like to eliminate, according to people who have spoken with him. And he presses the executives for “big ideas” about how to bring back U.S. jobs.
Industry and business executives are sometimes astonished by the level of access they have to the Trump administration, especially after eight years with Barack Obama in the White House.
“They’ve been shut out for so long that they’re still trying to figure out that they are allowed to say what they want to say,” said the leader of an industry-backed advocacy group, who requested anonymity to characterize interactions with the president. “It’s a different dynamic now.”
But government watchdogs and progressive groups argue that Trump is beholden to the interests of big business over the American people, comparing his frequent meetings with deep-pocketed executives to former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s close cooperation with the energy industry.
“Trump is definitely trying to position himself as the president of big business and that’s a problem,” said Nick Schwellenbach, the director of investigations at the Project On Government Oversight. “Obviously business is important, but other considerations need to be taken into account when we’re talking about national policy decisions.”
Over the last two months, Trump has met with executives from the technology, energy, health care, retail, airline, financial services, automotive, chemical and manufacturing industries. It’s impossible to develop a complete list of Trump’s discussions with industry and business executives because the White House has not yet released visitor logs and many of the president’s meetings at his Mar-a-Lago estate are not made public.
“President Trump has always made clear he recognizes the importance of meeting with business leaders and workers at all levels,” a White House official said, noting that Trump has also met with union workers, veterans and small business owners. “The President is committed to supporting American workers, which is why he goes straight to the source to assess what is working and what isn’t.”
During the Republican primaries, many industry officials were deeply skeptical of Trump, who often targets companies for shipping jobs overseas and once dismissed the oil industry as a “special interest.” But after it became clear he’d be the Republican nominee, Trump and his team built strong relationships with the very industries he once criticized.
Early on, Trump’s transition team was stacked with lobbyists with ties to the fossil fuel, chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Transition team officials repeatedly held “listening sessions” with industry representatives from the technology, health care and energy sectors in the months before Trump took office, according to people who attended, giving lobbyists a forum to make policy recommendations to the then-candidate’s advisers.
Trump later imposed lobbying restrictions on people serving in the transition and, once he became president, issued an executive order limiting the role of lobbyists in his administration.
Despite Trump’s restrictions, several former industry lobbyists are now serving in the Trump administration, including Mike Catanzaro, a White House energy adviser who previously lobbied for fossil fuel companies. The administration is also brimming with former business executives, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.
Exxon Mobil, the company that Tillerson led for more than a decade, won a high-profile endorsement from Trump earlier this month for its announcement that it is investing in manufacturing jobs in the U.S. The White House issued a statement, a rare minute-long video praising Exxon’s announcement and Trump took to Twitter to heap praise on the company.
Trump’s energy policy often echoes fossil fuel companies’ priorities. Industry groups have for years advocated for a Keystone approval (Exxon lobbied in favor of the pipeline), which Trump’s State Department green-lighted on Friday, reversing an Obama administration decision.
Tillerson personally lobbied to kill an Obama administration regulation that required oil and mining companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments. In February, Trump signed a Congress-backed resolution killing the rule.
The president is slated to sign an executive order on Tuesday that, according to people briefed on the matter, will read like an oil and coal industry wishlist. The order will begin the process of overturning Obama’s landmark climate regulations limiting emissions from power plants and it will take steps to overturn or review Obama-era limits on coal leasing, fracking and methane emissions on public lands — all top industry priorities.
Several energy executives have talked to Trump in recent months about their concerns with Obama’s regulations, including Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, who helped shape Trump’s energy policies during the campaign, and Robert Murray, the CEO of coal company Murray Energy. A Murray spokesman declined to comment on his communications with the president.
Murray and National Mining Association President Hal Quinn attended an event at the White House in which Trump signed a resolution overturning an Obama administration regulation meant to protect streams from mountaintop removal coal mining.
Trump administration officials have met with representatives from oil and coal companies, including Peabody Energy and ConocoPhillips, as they weigh whether to stay in the Paris climate change agreement, according to people familiar with the meetings.
At the urging of billionaire investor Carl Icahn, a friend of the president, Trump administration officials also briefly discussed making changes to a federal biofuels program, according to a person familiar with the internal deliberations. The change would have benefited Icahn’s oil refinery business.
When a group of airline executives met with Trump at the White House in February, they pitched him on one of their biggest priorities: spinning off air traffic control operations from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation whose board would include airline representatives. The proposal, which was also pushed by lawmakers like House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), was later included in Trump’s budget proposal.
In many cases Trump’s deregulatory agenda closely mimics industry groups recommendations. The powerful Business Roundtable, which is chaired by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, outlined a list of “top regulations of concern” in a February letter to the White House.
Several of the measures mentioned on the list are already in the process of being overturned, including climate change regulations for power plants; a water regulation to protect the country’s streams and wetlands; the so-called Cadillac tax (the tax was delayed in the ill-fated Republican health care bill); and the regulation requiring disclosure of payments to foreign governments.
“Almost every action that they’re taking is deregulatory, which is a direct benefit to some industry,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen.
Days after having a private meeting with Trump at the White House, Dimon was by Trump’s side when the president signed an executive order in February that took the first steps toward rolling back Obama administration financial regulations.
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“We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank because frankly I have so many people, friends of mine that have nice businesses and they can’t borrow money,” Trump said during the signing ceremony. “The banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank.”
Trump’s frequent contact with CEOs is leading to heightened scrutiny from outside groups.
Former Obama administration lawyers are raising questions about a phone call earlier this month between Trump and Joseph Swedish, the CEO of Anthem, the country’s second-largest health insurer. Anthem is seeking federal approval for its $54 billion acquisition of Cigna.
In a recent letter to the Justice Department, the coalition of Obama lawyers, known as United to Protect Democracy, called for an investigation into possible contacts between the White House and the Justice Department, which is overseeing the merger. The letter points to the call between Trump and Swedish, and notes that Makan Delrahim, a current deputy White House counsel who previously lobbied for Anthem, is expected to be nominated to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Trump announced his intent to nominate Delrahim to the Justice Department job on Monday night.
The White House strongly denied that anything improper took place, saying in a statement that Trump discussed the health care bill with Swedish “and the White House took specific precautions to ensure that neither the merger nor the related litigation was discussed during the call.”
“Evenhanded treatment under the law is a bedrock principle of our democracy,” the Obama lawyers wrote in the letter. “The American people depend on the [Justice Department] to enforce our federal laws equally as to all parties, regardless of those parties’ size, influence, or political connections.”
Nancy Cook, Kathryn A. Wolfe, Paul Demko, Victoria Guida and Theodoric Meyer contributed to this story.