In a string of heated West Wing gatherings, aides have aired deep differences over the climate agreement, which President Barack Obama's administration brokered and which every nation except Syria and Nicaragua has signed onto. A sticky legal hang-up has frustrated those advisers who advocate remaining in the pact.
Instead of keeping their advice to President Donald Trump closely held, the President's advisers have openly discussed their views of the agreement on television and at events. Meetings to discuss the plan between aides are announced publicly as a final decision approaches. The openness appears to be by design, as Trump and his team tout an openness to different viewpoints and a degree of ideological flexibility.
A Tuesday strategy session was postponed due to a scheduling conflict, the White House said. A decision about whether to withdraw from the agreement could come as soon as this week, according to two people familiar with the talks.
For many top members of the administration, the debate over whether to stay in Paris or withdraw has moved beyond simple climate science or diplomatic calculus and into a larger dispute over how the Trump administration plans to position itself at the global negotiating table moving forward. Trump has resolved to announce his intentions by this month's Group of 7 meeting in Sicily, meaning a decision to withdraw could isolate him at his first gathering of world leaders.
"To some people, Paris is more than just an environmental deal," a person familiar with the talks said as the debate roiled.
Rightly or not, the debate has also been regarded as a proxy battle between rival factions within the West Wing, who are split between a nationalist worldview and a more globalist outlook.
The actual dividing lines are blurrier, according to half a dozen people familiar with the discussions, and have shifted as aides get a clearer picture about what, precisely, withdrawing from the landmark climate pact would mean for the United States.
Promise to 'cancel'
Trump, himself, who promised as a candidate to "cancel" the Paris agreement, has said he still wants out, according to administration officials. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has pressed Trump to uphold his campaign promises to withdraw from the plan and thereby signal a commitment to American energy producers, including coal miners.
But those views have been tempered by Trump's daughter, Ivanka, who has insisted aides provide her father with the full picture of what a withdrawal could mean for US, according to the people familiar with the talks. Ivanka Trump plans to meet separately with Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who has said publicly over the last month that the US should pull out of the deal.
In arguing against a full withdrawal, the first daughter, who serves as a White House adviser, is joined by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has warned of diminished US diplomatic standing as a result of pulling out of Paris; Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who advised the US "renegotiate" its commitments; and major US fossil fuel firms, who say the deal provides an effective framework for addressing climate change.
Ivanka Trump has said she'll focus partially on climate change in her White House role, and helped set up a meeting during the transition period between her father and former Vice President Al Gore, an outspoken climate activist. She has not, however, spelled out any administration initiatives for combating climate change. And a withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement could dampen any hopes that Trump's daughter would provide a moderating voice on environmental issues inside the West Wing.
Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, meanwhile, has adopted a more neutral stance, facilitating a policy and legal discussion without advocating for any particular outcome. A person familiar with Kushner's thinking said the top adviser was initially surprised at the complexity of the legal language contained within the Paris accord, and has pressed the administration's legal minds for a better explanation of the agreement's various clauses.
"He wants to understand what the basic facts of the agreement are," said one person close to the talks.
According to those close to the discussions, the look into the legalities of the deal has led to widespread agreement among different agencies that remaining in the accord, while failing to reach the carbon reduction targets set by the Obama administration, would open the administration to legal challenges by climate activists.
The legal analysis centers on a single phrase in the Paris deal: a clause declaring a signatory "may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition."
Lawyers from the White House, State Department and Justice Department have all agreed that language doesn't allow countries to adjust their carbon reduction commitments downward -- a move that would be required if the Trump administration hoped to remain in the deal while still removing the Obama-era environmental regulations that Trump has vowed to scrap.
The Obama administration pledged in 2015 to reduce US carbon output by 26-28% by 2025, but the lynchpin of achieving that goal -- closing coal-fired power plants -- is under review by the Trump administration and is expected to be scaled back if not eliminated outright.
Administration lawyers have warned that such a downward adjustment in carbon reduction could lead to lawsuits, putting another White House policy in the hands of the courts amid ongoing legal challenges to Trump's proposed visa ban and his vow to strip "sanctuary cities" of federal funding.
However, people who drafted the Paris agreement during the Obama administration insist the language wasn't meant to require only upward shifts in carbon reduction targets. Instead, they say flexibility was the intent, and warn against a withdrawal from the accord.
Even reducing the US carbon reduction targets would be preferable to withdrawing altogether, said Todd Stern, the lead US negotiator on the Paris agreement during the Obama administration.
"I think that would be very unfortunate, it would be a bad signal, it would be a bad example to others, but it's a lot better than pulling out of the agreement altogether," he said. "I don't condone that at all, but between the two, it's absolutely better to stay in the agreement."