Editor’s Note: Sheldon Whitehouse is the junior Democratic senator from Rhode Island. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump said, “We have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission – to make America great again for all Americans.”
However, behind the scenes, President Trump is not calling all of the shots. While he golfs and tweets and watches cable news, several disturbingly powerful billionaires are pulling the levers and winning special treatment.
So, who is behind the curtain?
Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor, was brought in as “special adviser” to the President in order to cut regulations. On the campaign trail, the President bragged of his relationship with Icahn, calling him one of “the great businessmen of the world.” Icahn, who bought one of Trump’s Atlantic City casinos out of bankruptcy and contributed the maximum he legally could to the Trump campaign, said he would slash “crazy regulations” hindering American businesses.
It turned out Icahn had one particular regulation in mind. Skirting conflict of interest rules that apply to formally appointed executive branch officials, he undertook to change the Environmental Protection Agency’s “renewable fuel standard” that required oil refiners to blend corn-based ethanol into gasoline. Changing the rule would save one of Icahn’s companies, CVR Energy, hundreds of millions of dollars.
Icahn’s insider campaign provoked intense scrutiny from Congress, in a steady stream of oversight requests, and from the media, in a steady stream of reporting. Icahn resigned from his role; the EPA put Icahn’s proposed rule change on ice, and federal investigators have since opened a probe into his time advising the White House. Icahn calls the concern about his breathtaking conflicts of interest “absurd.”
Next, there’s Bob Murray, the billionaire coal baron who donated $300,000 to the President’s inauguration and $1 million to his leading super PAC, while lobbying the Trump administration for actions favorable to his company. He has also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to political action committees affiliated with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Murray has boasted about his “action plan” for President Trump, a four-page wish list of policies to benefit him and his company: subsidizing coal plants over renewable energy, slashing regulations for coal-fired power plants, weakening miner safety standards and appointing friendly nominees in the agencies charged with regulating his mines. Notably, Murray’s longtime lobbyist Andrew Wheeler is also lined up for the number-two spot at the EPA, poised to deliver on the plan.
And then there are the most sophisticated puppet masters of all: the billionaire Koch brothers. In July 2015, President Trump tweeted, “I really like the Koch Brothers (members of my [Palm Beach] Club), but I don’t want their money or anything else from them. Cannot influence Trump!”
They don’t influence Trump – they man his administration. According to a report by Public Citizen, a progressive advocacy group, 44 administration officials come from Koch-backed organizations or political groups. EPA Administrator Pruitt has been heavily supported by the Kochs (including $3 million spent to boost his confirmation), as has Energy Secretary Perry (including tens of thousands of dollars in donations to his campaigns).
And Vice President Mike Pence has long been intertwined with the Koch operation, through funding and staff. Among his many ties to the Koch network, Pence’s former chief of staff, Marc Short (now White House congressional liaison) is a top Koch operative who also served as president of the Koch’s Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.
They win huge paydays. The Kochs spent $20 million to promote the unpopular Republican tax cuts, and now stand to see their tax bill slashed by as much as $1.4 billion a year. They thanked Speaker Paul Ryan for pushing it through with a $500,000 donation to his political fundraising committee and a promise to spend $20 million more to tout the tax giveaway in upcoming elections. When billionaires spend millions to convince Americans that the tax cuts are good, it might actually be a sign that for most people, they aren’t.
The Koch brothers weren’t on board with the Trump candidacy at first. But the Kochs, like Icahn and Murray, saw in the Trump administration a golden opportunity, particularly once their man Pence was in place.
On the anniversary of Trump’s swearing-in, a group of Democratic Senators released a report on how the President has outsourced his decision-making to billionaires looking to advance their own interests. These billionaires don’t care about putting Americans back to work or ending unfair trade deals or “draining the swamp.” They care about controlling government, for their own financial benefit, in a way the Founding Fathers would have recognized as corruption.