Inside the ‘dirty’ fight to leave the Paris deal

Source: Jean Chemnick and Emily Holden, E&E News reporters • Posted: Sunday, July 9, 2017

President Trump was in a tiny room on an Italian hilltop with six world leaders determined to get him to stay in the Paris Agreement.

It was May 26, and the president was said to be using the Group of Seven meeting in Taormina, Sicily, to help shape his final decision on whether to remain in the landmark climate deal. But the other leaders — increasingly referred to in Europe as the G-6 — had come prepared.

They sat around a doughnut-shaped table in the San Domenico Palace Hotel and appealed to Trump’s view of himself as a jobs-maker. In earlier bilateral tête-à-têtes, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all took turns impressing on him that staying in the deal would yield economic dividends in America.

It was a message they hoped would resonate with the businessman-turned-president: that quitting Paris, as Trump had promised on the campaign trail, would isolate the United States and make it less competitive.

They were wrong. But that wouldn’t be known for another week. Until then, White House officials would send one signal, then another, about Trump’s latest attitudes on the pact.

In forays down the hill from Taormina, to the less-affluent resort town of Giardini Naxos, where the press was kept, Trump’s National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn, said Trump was “leaning” to understand his fellow leaders’ views. Trump’s ideas were “evolving,” he added.

That might have never been the case.

European diplomats said there was little evidence of that in San Domenico. Trump seemed to ignore his allies’ words, according to European diplomats and others with knowledge of the meetings. Instead, the president uttered his own worried assessment while sitting at the table on the hilltop: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

European leaders, in their turn, were increasingly frustrated that Trump “refused to commit to anything … [but also] that he did not try to understand complex arguments,” said one diplomat.

Trump would “lose interest” when another president, prime minister or chancellor would make a complex argument about climate policy and growth in jobs, the source said. Still, he was polite, and White House staffers took lots of notes.

Some of those staff members had been angling for Trump to reverse his campaign pledge on Paris. In meetings ahead of the leaders’ summit, some of Trump’s sherpa team considered language that would have affirmed Paris but clarified nations’ ability to weaken their emissions targets. The drafts also touted the importance of coal. Some international climate advocates were told to tell their media contacts to look for Trump to sign onto language along those lines. That fed a narrative that Trump might stay in Paris.

But the administration was sending mixed signals. Diplomats were up, then down. Hopes soured when Trump insisted that he was the recipient of environmental awards as a real estate developer. Those claims signaled a lack of seriousness to people working in the climate world.

“To me, the readout there was that he was extremely defensive in the meeting,” said Andrew Light, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute’s Global Climate Program.

“They ended up negotiating all night and came up with nothing the U.S. could sign onto,” he added.

The joint statement released the following day saw the G-6 — Italy, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan — double down on its support of Paris. The United States was out of the picture.

Merkel called the climate result “very unsatisfactory.” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said it was “the most challenging G-7 summit in years.”

Six days later, Trump announced plans to depart from the Paris accord. His speech was so strident and unequivocal that many wondered later if he had ever been persuadable.

‘Dirty’ and ‘rough’

The months of palace intrigue over quitting or staying weren’t perceptible in Trump’s Rose Garden announcement. It was as if he had traveled the circumference of a circle and ended where he started: dumping the deal. Or maybe he never moved away from his original position. His speech struck the same kind of adversarial tone that he took 13 months earlier in a North Dakota oil field. The United States has no use for global agreements that prioritize the environment over jobs.

When Trump first entered office, many expected him to exit the deal with a quick press release. But then the weeks went by. It became a problem. Cabinet members and advisers were openly disagreeing on whether to quit or stay.

One source described the fight as “dirty” and “rough.”

“It became incredibly political,” the source said. “I’ve never worked on an issue that evolved this way. You had this huge campaign outside of the confines of the administration and an internal struggle within the administration.”

U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was particularly active in lobbying to leave.

He went on cable television, asked conservatives to write letters and courted the coal lobby.

In late April, Pruitt attended a meeting of the National Mining Association’s executive committee to urge its members to vote for a withdrawal from the Paris deal. NMA initially had intended to stay neutral. Its members were split: Some wanted to stay in and lower U.S. emissions goals. Opponents of the Paris Agreement were “floored” that some fossil fuel interests wanted to stay in.

Pruitt’s office also had a hand in drafting a letter from Republican senators. It warned Trump that staying in the Paris accord could leave the door open for a U.S. carbon cap-and-trade program, according to the lead signatory, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) (Climatewire, June 2).

Pruitt found a natural ally in Steve Bannon, Trump’s nationalist strategic adviser, and in outside groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which reminded Trump of his electoral obligations.

“This was not just a campaign promise; it was an emphatic campaign promise,” said Myron Ebell, a senior adviser for CEI and an early agitator for a Paris exit.

On the other side, Trump’s daughter Ivanka reached out to business giants Apple Inc. and Dow Chemical Co. and asked them to talk to her father about staying in the deal, according to The Wall Street Journal. Trump’s economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were on her side, although Tillerson was less active.

The Rose Garden announcement painted a vivid picture of the two sides.

Supporters of the Paris Agreement were absent. Tillerson, the nation’s top diplomat, was tucked away in his office — during a major international announcement. Ivanka Trump and husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, weren’t there, either. Press aides said they were celebrating a Jewish holiday.

Pruitt, Bannon and their allies were all in attendance. Ebell, who hadn’t held a position in Trump’s administration since his stint leading the U.S. EPA transition team, sat in the second row.

Two months earlier, it looked as if there would be a very different outcome.

After riding to the White House on a wave of nationalist sentiment, Trump tapped a number of New York “globalists” in positions of prominence, a move that seemed to give some credence to his post-election pronouncement to The New York Times that he had a “totally open mind” on Paris.

Tillerson had joined with other heads of multinational oil companies in backing Paris. Another indicator that Trump might walk back his campaign pledge came when the White House moved the energy and climate policy team into the National Economic Council under director Cohn.

This gave George David Banks, the White House special assistant for international energy and environment and an active proponent of staying in Paris, a senior perch that positioned him to influence the decision. The council was stacked with “remainers” — Banks, Cohn and Cohn’s then-deputy, Kenneth Juster, all favored staying in the deal.

“So that whole chain of command on the international side seemed to take a positive attitude to staying in the agreement, and they were running energy and climate policy,” said Paul Bodnar, who was Banks’ predecessor under President Obama.

Banks had early success in convincing a small cadre of coal companies and Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) to urge Trump to stay in Paris with a weaker target and possible “concessions” for coal.

And then there was Trump’s family, who had followed Trump to Washington and seemed to have unique influence with the president. Ivanka Trump unexpectedly made climate change a signature issue, joining with her husband to convince President Trump not to include a Paris exit in a March executive order gutting Obama’s domestic climate change policies.

“They kept it alive for a real policy discussion and an outreach campaign,” one source said.

‘Uh-oh. That’s bad’

While the “remain” camp searched for a way for Trump to save face while he stayed in Paris, another flank was emerging within the administration that was determined to withdraw.

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general with a reputation as an anti-regulatory crusader, was deferential on Paris during his February confirmation process. But a few weeks later, he began a media campaign with a refrain: Paris is a “bad deal for this country.”

Meanwhile, Bannon was reaching out to the right-wing media, from which he hailed as a founding board member of Breitbart News, to stoke conservative insistence that Trump make good on his campaign pledge.

By April, it became clear that the Paris decision would not be done quickly and quietly.

“The day I heard, ‘We’re going to have to have a principals committee,’ I thought, ‘Uh-oh. That’s bad,'” said Light, the former State Department official. It meant, he said, “a bigger conversation that includes people like Bannon and Pruitt” — people who “know how to get stuff done.”

“This is where experience pays off,” Light said.

The political neophytes from New York City, including investment banker Cohn, were further placed at a disadvantage, Light said, because there were no layers of political appointees to lay the groundwork for the high-level meetings.

When Cabinet members and top aides gathered on April 27, talks broke down around a legal issue concerning the United States’ nationally determined contribution, something that had received scant attention beforehand.

Don McGahn, the White House counsel, told attendees that reducing the NDC would trigger lawsuits. He armed Bannon, Pruitt and other proponents of a Paris exit with ammunition they would use throughout the rest of the decisionmaking process. The “remain” crowd would never regain the upper ground.

It did win one more battle, however. The White House announced that the president wouldn’t make a decision until after he returned from meeting with world leaders at the G-7 summit in Sicily.

“Remainers” hoped foreign leaders would defend the most important multilateral accomplishment of recent years, and some began circulating rumors that the president would sign the group’s communiqué endorsing Paris, which would have been a de facto announcement to stay in.

European diplomats said conditions in the negotiating room were tense. Merkel, Macron and Trudeau all took turns arguing that the Paris deal has economic benefits. But they didn’t focus on another line of reasoning that was rising among U.S. officials opposed to the deal: the legality of weakening American emissions commitments.

Alienating Trump

In the end, it may have seemed as if the leaders were ganging up on Trump, even though they took care not to embarrass him.

“There was no way to construct this conversation so that he wasn’t alienated in that room,” said Light.

For a president with an eye on his image, flattery might have gone further than explicit persuasion.

“I don’t think that people in other countries sway this president unless they do it by praising his brilliance, as President Putin did,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

Meanwhile, the other leaders’ frustration with Trump was apparent. Merkel responded to the growing gloom around Paris, and to Trump’s refusal to reaffirm mutual defense commitments with NATO allies, by telling an audience in a beer garden that Europe could no longer “completely depend” on some of its closes allies. She didn’t mention Trump, but she might as well have.

Trump would announce his Paris decision one week later.

Might the Rose Garden announcement have gone any other way?

Ebell thought it might have.

“In early April, we were losing,” he said, attributing the “remain” camp’s early lead to pressure from Ivanka and Kushner. He called McGahn’s decision on loosening national commitments the “key intervention” in the process.

“I can’t think of a single case where the president ever contradicted the advice he was getting from his own White House counsel,” he said. “So I think that that was decisive.”

A source familiar with the process said Trump was always skeptical of the Paris deal and searching for support to leave it.

“The burden of proof was on people who wanted to remain,” the source said. And while most of the White House staff backed “remain,” and Cohn and his team succeeded in showing business support for their case, that didn’t prove to be enough, the source said.

The source disagreed with others who said the McGahn intervention was critical.

“I think it was always a political debate, not a substantive debate,” the source said.

Reporter Eric J. Lyman contributed.