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How the Koch Brothers Won the White House

By Lee Fang

If the billionaire Koch brothers turn to the White House for favors, they will see many familiar faces.

Newly disclosed ethics forms reveal that a significant number of senior Trump staffers were previously employed by the sprawling network of hard-right and libertarian advocacy groups financed and controlled by Charles and David Koch, the conservative duo hyper-focused on entrenching Republican power, eliminating taxes and slashing environmental and labor regulations.

Some of the relationships were well-known. Marc Short, for instance, now Trump's chief liaison to Congress, previously led Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the dark money nonprofit used by the Koch brothers and their donor cohort to dispense money to allied groups. Freedom Partners, which maintains an affiliate Super PAC, was at the center of the Kochs' $750 million election effort during the campaign last year.

But the ethics forms, made available to the public on Friday evening, reveal a number of previously undisclosed financial ties between the Koch network and Trump's inner circle of political aides.

Donald McGahn, Trump's campaign attorney turned White House counsel, provided legal services to a range of outside Koch groups working to influence the election. McGahn, through the law firm Jones Day, advised Freedom Partners, as well as i360, the Koch's big data firm set up to identify and target voters and Americans for Prosperity, the election advocacy and grassroots lobbying organization run by the Koch brothers. Ann Donaldson, McGahn's chief of staff, came to the White House from McGahn's law firm. Her financial disclosure shows that she also provided legal services to Freedom Partners and i360.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump's former campaign manager turned close White House advisor, consulted over the last year for Americans for Prosperity's national foundation, as well as for the Michigan and Ohio chapters of the group. Conway served as a board member for the Independent Women's Forum, a Koch-backed group whose goal is "increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty."

The fact that Trump's political team worked for the Koch network during the campaign adds a new wrinkle to the relationship between the president and the most well-known pair of Republican billionaires.

The Koch network has long pioneered a strategy of backing GOP campaigns by using seemingly independent nonprofits and outside election groups. Election law prohibits organizations that raise and spend unlimited funds, such as the Freedom Partners' Super PAC and Americans for Prosperity, from directly coordinating with candidates.

But those rules are rarely enforced. Moreover, campaigns and Super PACs have danced around the coordination prohibition by employing individuals who split their time between candidates and outside groups, making them a crucial conduit for potential coordination.

Despite the common myth that the Koch network, in the words of Politico, "sat out" the presidential campaign, Koch groups were active in battleground states that proved critical to Trump's victory. Americans for Prosperity employed 650 staff members during the campaign, with many stationed in Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire and Missouri. The field staff, using the new data tools from i360, focused on making sure Republican voters made it to the polls.

In the aforementioned states, Americans for Prosperity also aired negative ads attacking Hillary Clinton in the last weeks of the campaign, linking her to Democratic candidates and problems allegedly caused by the Affordable Care Act. The ads, which blanketed swing state television stations, held Clinton responsible for healthcare with "higher cost, lost coverage, lost doctors."

The election effort swept the GOP to a level of national power not seen since the 1920s. And the Koch network has been quick to seize upon unified Republican control of Washington to quickly score a range of policy and political victories.

Freedom Partners Vice President Andy Koenig told the Los Angeles Times after the election that his group hoped Trump would "walk in with an eraser" and wipe out as many Obama reforms as possible. The group formulated a "Roadmap to Repeal," a memo calling for the administration to prioritize revoking the Paris climate change treaty, repealing clean water rules and eliminating limits on pollution from coal-fire power plants.

In recent weeks, Trump and congressional leaders have used a little-known procedure called the Congressional Review Act to swiftly roll back the very regulations identified by the Koch memo. And they have been aided by a team that came to the White House policy staff directly from the Koch network.

Koenig, the former Freedom Partners vice president, is now working in the White House as a policy assistant. Koenig's financial disclosure shows that he made $320,000 at the group before moving through the revolving door.

In addition, Andrew Bremberg, now the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and Bethany Scully, an official working in Trump's Office of Legislative Affairs, both worked for Freedom Partners. Bremberg's disclosure shows that he consulted for the group through a consulting firm he owns called Right Policy LLC.

The Trump policy team includes Brian Blase, a special assistant to the president working on healthcare issues, who came to the White House from the Mercatus Center, the Koch network think tank at George Mason University.

A number of Vice President Mike Pence's staff also came directly from Koch organizations. Andeliz Castillo, named earlier this year as a Pence senior aide, came from the Libre Initiative, the Latino outreach arm of the Koch network. Stephen Ford, Pence's director of speechwriting, previously worked as a speechwriter for Koch's Freedom Parters.

To be sure, there is not perfect harmony between the Koch brothers and Trump. The Koch network harshly criticized the American Health Care Act, attacking it for not doing enough to repeal Obamacare. And the groups have lobbied against the so-called border adjustment tax, a proposal favored by some in the Trump White House.

But if the latest member-wide email from Americans for Prosperity is any indication, the Koch brothers have much to celebrate with Trump in the White House.

The email, titled, "Thank you, President Trump," hails the president for issuing an executive order to repeal of Obama's "Clean Power Plan," the biggest pillar in the previous administration's climate change strategy. The message goes on to boast that Americans for Prosperity is providing the lobbying muscle, along with paid advertisements and mobilizing calls to Congress, to help confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Intercept.

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4 Pipeline Fights Intensify as Dakota Access Nears Completion

By Alleen Brown

Under orders from President Trump, the Army Corps of Engineers on Feb. 7 approved a final easement allowing Energy Transfer Partners to drill under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Construction has re-started, and lawyers for the company said it could take as little as 30 days for oil to flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline.

While the Standing Rock Sioux and neighboring tribes attempt to halt the project in court, other opponents of the pipeline have launched what they're calling a "last stand," holding protests and disruptive actions across the U.S. In North Dakota, where it all began, a few hundred people continue to live at camps on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, using them as bases for prayer and for direct actions to block construction. Last week, camps were served eviction notices from Governor Doug Burgum and from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, demanding that they clear the biggest camp, Oceti Sakowin, by Wednesday and a smaller camp, Sacred Stone, within 10 days.

The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline didn't come from nowhere. It's a direct descendant of the Keystone XL fight—both pass through the territory of the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, which includes bands of the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people. And when Standing Rock tribal members saw that it was time to mobilize, they turned to relatives that had fought the Keystone XL.

In 2014, Joye Braun was living at an anti-Keystone XL camp called Pte Ospaye, on the Cheyenne River reservation, when she first heard about a new pipeline that would pass just outside the border of the Standing Rock reservation, on land leaders said would be tribally controlled if the U.S. government obeyed its treaties. "I went holy crap, here comes another one," she said. Two years later, she would find herself helping set up Sacred Stone camp, the first anti-Dakota Access pipeline camp.

Now, most of the thousands of people that visited Standing Rock last fall have returned home, and some have taken up long-shot local fights against the oil and gas industry. In Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee it's the Diamond pipeline; in Louisiana, the Bayou Bridge. In Wisconsin, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa actually voted to decommission and remove the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline from their reservation.

Many communities have turned to direct action as a last resort. The city of Lafayette, Colorado, which has long attempted to block fracking in the area, has even proposed a climate bill of rights, enforceable via nonviolent direct action if the legal system fails.

In at least four states, encampments built as bases for pipeline resistance have emerged. They face corporations emboldened by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, which have used their first month in power to grant fossil fuel industry wishes, overturning environmental protections, appointing former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and reviving the halted Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

"Forces arrayed against us are quite wide in my opinion," said Owl, a member of the Ramapough-Lunaape tribe who helped set up a camp in New Jersey to oppose the Pilgrim pipeline. "They are hell-bent on this infrastructure."

Here's what you need to know about the Trans-Pecos, Atlantic Sunrise, Sabal Trail and Pilgrim pipelines:

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Fracking Rule Text Disappears From Interior Department Website

By Alleen Brown

In Donald Trump's first week as president, text describing two rules regulating the oil and gas industry was removed from an Interior Department website. The rules, limiting hydraulic fracturing and natural gas flaring on public lands, are in the crosshairs of the Trump administration.

The changes were noted by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative or EDGI, which has been monitoring changes to federal web sites since Trump's inauguration.

On Jan. 21, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) page, which describes various regulations for how the oil and gas industry should operate on federal land, still included a section on the Methane and Waste Prevention rule. The regulation was part of the Obama administration's effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change. By Jan. 28, the section was gone.

The rule, which is widely opposed by the oil and gas industry, limits fossil fuel companies' ability to vent and flare gas on public land, which releases methane, a greenhouse gas around 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. It was one of the first Obama era regulations to be targeted by a Republican-controlled Congress empowered by Trump. On Feb. 3, at least five days after the site had been updated, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the methane rule using the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress 60 days to eliminate federal regulations legislators don't like. The bill awaits a Senate vote.

Also removed was text within a section on the Interior Department's hydraulic fracturing rule, Obama's primary attempt to limit the impacts of the controversial oil and gas extraction method. The page still notes that the rule exists but it no longer describes what it does. The deleted text stated that the regulation was meant "to ensure that when operations are undertaken on lands where a BLM permit is required, steps are taken to ensure wellbore integrity, proper waste water management and greater transparency about the process, including information about the composition of fracturing fluids."

Reviled by the industry and by Republicans, the fracking rule was struck down in a federal court last June, when a judge ruled that the Interior Department lacks authority to regulate fracking. The Obama administration had been appealing the decision.

Also removed was text noting "ongoing regulatory efforts" to update old rules that have not kept up with the way oil and gas companies operate today.

A BLM website dedicated to the methane rule is unchanged. "The text was updated because the Venting and Flaring rule was no longer a proposed rule as indicated on the old webpage," said BLM spokesperson Michael Richardson. "The BLM is proceeding to implement the rule now that it has changed from a proposed rule to a final rule until directed otherwise."

Richardson declined to comment on the ongoing litigation over the hydraulic fracturing rule.

"It's hard to tell how significant these changes are, but there's certainly a striking congruence with the attacks on the methane rule under the current administration," said Rebecca Lave, who's leading EDGI's monitoring effort.

The group has also been involved in an effort to extract environmental and climate databases from federal sites and preserve them for researchers, in case the Trump administration takes them down. On Tuesday, the Open White House federal data website ceased functioning. A message at the top of the page read: "Check back soon for new data."

Max Ogden, a programmer for the non-profit Dat Data Project tweeted that he had downloaded the data on inauguration day and would redistribute soon. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also recently moved inspection reports offline that include information about animal abuse at various facilities, which will now only be accessible via notoriously slow Freedom of Information Act requests.

So far EDGI hasn't noticed similar removals of entire environmental databases. In addition to changes the group anticipated, such as deletions of references to the previous administration, Lave said, "What we're seeing instead is patterns of changes in wording, we're seeing the removal of links to basic information, we're seeing to some extent the beginnings of reorganizations in federal agencies."

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Intercept.

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Workers rip the earth apart in search of gold at the Sufferance mine in the Ituri region. Much of Congo's gold, more than $600 million worth a year, is smuggled across borders. Photo credit: Marcus Bleasdale / National Geographic

Leaked Memo Shows Trump Could Let U.S. Firms Buy 'Conflict Minerals'

By Lee Fang

The leaked draft of a presidential memorandum Donald Trump is expected to sign within days suspends a 2010 rule that discouraged American companies from funding conflict and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through their purchase of "conflict minerals."

The memo, distributed inside the administration on Friday afternoon and obtained by The Intercept, directs the Securities and Exchange Commission to temporarily waive the requirements of the Conflict Mineral Rule, a provision of the Dodd Frank Act, for two years—which the rule explicitly allows the president to do for national security purposes. The memorandum also directs the State Department and Treasury Department to find an alternative plan to "address such problems in the DRC and adjoining countries."

The idea behind the rule, which had bipartisan support, was to drain militias of revenue by forcing firms to conduct reviews of their supply chain to determine if contractors used minerals sourced from the militias.

The impending decision comes as Trump held a meeting Wednesday with Brian Krzanich, the chief executive of Intel, one of the leading firms impacted by conflict mineral regulations. At the White House today, Krzanich appeared with the president to announce a new manufacturing plant in Arizona.

Human rights advocates—who had celebrated the conflicts rule as a major step forward—were appalled.

"Any executive action suspending the U.S. conflict minerals rule would be a gift to predatory armed groups seeking to profit from Congo's minerals as well as a gift to companies wanting to do business with the criminal and the corrupt," said Carly Oboth, the policy adviser at Global Witness, in a statement responding to a Reuters article that first reported the move.

"It is an abuse of power that the Trump administration is claiming that the law should be suspended through a national security exemption intended for emergency purposes. Suspending this provision could actually undermine U.S. national security."

Advanced computer chips, including technology used in cell phones and semiconductors, contain minerals often sourced from war-torn countries in central Africa. Firms such as Intel, Apple, HP and IBM use advanced chips that contain tantalum, gold, tin and tungsten—elements that can be mined at low prices in the the DRC, where mines are often controlled by militias fueling a decades long civil war.

American tech companies, such as Intel, lobbied directly on the rule when it was proposed. But since passage, tech firms have largely used third party business groups to stymie the rule. Trade groups representing major U.S. tech firms and other manufacturers, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, attempted to block the rule through a federal lawsuit. In 2014, a federal court struck down a part of the rule that forced firms to reveal DRC conflict minerals on their corporate websites.

Intel is also one of the firms that has touted its effort to comply with the law, publishing a report that notes the company has conducted 40 on-site reviews of smelters in the eastern DRC.

Reuters also reported that acting SEC chief Michael Piwowar has taken steps to also weaken enforcement, asking staff to "reconsider how companies should comply."

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Intercept.

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Government Scientists at Climate Conference Terrified to Speak With the Press

By Sharon Lerner

While Donald Trump was reviving both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, muzzling federal employees, freezing EPA contracts and first telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove mentions of climate change from its website—and then reversing course—many of the scientists who work on climate change in federal agencies were meeting just a few miles from the White House to present and discuss their work.

The mood was understandably gloomy at the National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy, and the Environment. "I don't know what's going to happen. No one knows what's going to happen," one EPA staffer who works on climate issues told me on Tuesday, as she ate her lunch. She had spent much of her time in recent weeks trying to preserve and document the methane-related projects she's been working on for years. But the prevailing sense was that, Trump's claims about being an environmentalist notwithstanding, the president is moving forward with his plan to eviscerate environmental protections, particularly those related to climate change and the EPA itself.

"It's strange," the woman said. "People keep walking up to me and giving me hugs." Like several others I spoke to for this story, she declined to tell me her name out of fear that she might suffer retaliation, including being fired. She was not being paranoid. Already, agency higher ups had warned the EPA staff against talking to the press or even updating blogs or issuing news releases. "Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press," said one EPA missive that was shared broadly and ended up in the press. And while the staffer was at the meeting, the EPA's new brass issued another memo to staff requiring all regional offices to submit a list of external meetings and presentations, noting which might be controversial and why.

The directives have left scientists fearing reprisal for merely mentioning the global crisis that has been at the center of their professional lives for years. It's the topic "whose name cannot be uttered," as one Forest Service employee put it to me. A nearby U.S. Department of Agriculture employee offered a series of euphemisms—"extreme weather events, very unusual patterns," he riffed—before turning serious. "I'm actually scared to talk to you," he said, turning his hanging name tag inward and backing away from me. The look in his eyes and the tight smiles I received from several federal employees after introducing myself as a reporter reminded me of interviewing scientists in China. My presence inspired fear.

Afraid or not, many federal researchers continued doing their jobs despite the impending doom, presenting research on everything from disease-causing mosquitos to heat waves, decreasing water availability and toxic algal blooms—all issues that have become dramatically more important as the Earth has warmed.

With the dark political backdrop, the hub of productive energy at the conference, which was co-sponsored by the EPA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service, brought to mind a cartoon character whose feet continue to frantically pedal in the air even after he's gone off the cliff.

Among the meeting's attendees, who included researchers from academia, the private sector and government, there was no discussion of whether climate change is real, no tangled Kremlin-speak suggesting that "the ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue," as Scott Pruitt, Trump's nominee to head the EPA, put it in his confirmation hearing last week.

Instead the scientists were focused on the measurable and indisputable changes they've observed—how habitat changes have resulted in epidemics of plague in prairie dogs that can spread the disease to humans, for instance or the way that algal blooms on lakes have impacted the fishing industry. Indeed, the breadth of the climate science at the conference spoke to the absurdity that even someone as powerful as the president of the U.S. could undo it. The Senate held its first hearing on climate change more than 30 years ago and in the intervening years, as understanding of our warming planet has grown, the government has not only collected precise measurements of vanishing arctic ice, rising sea levels, increasing global temperatures, river flooding, drought and heavy rain, it has used that data to understand the short- and long-term consequences of the phenomenon.

As a report I picked up at one of the tables, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, makes clear, these many objective phenomena have health consequences "now and in the future." Among those listed were heat-related illness and death, drowning and injuries from flooding, lung and respiratory diseases due to worsening air quality, intestinal illnesses and blood stream infections from water-related infections, water-borne infections and Lyme disease.

That report was a collaboration of 11 federal agencies, including the Departments of Energy, Transportation, Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy, State and the Interior, many of which have been working on ways to avert and address further disastrous impacts. Scientists have come up with specific plans for disposing of our waste in a hotter world, for instance and have identified people most vulnerable to climate change (such as kids and the elderly). They have calculated and prepared for increased amounts of storm water and developed an integrated heat health information system that includes air quality forecasts and resources for heat waves.

This data visualization shows the record low Arctic sea ice extent on Aug. 26, 2012. With less ice to reflect sunlight, larger areas of open water absorb more of the sun's heat. This heat slowly escapes into the atmosphere, causing atmospheric heating during the Arctic autumn.Scientific Visualization Studio / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

For those who spend their professional lives focusing on this complex web of interconnected phenomena causing and resulting from climate change, denial and the censoring of the term puts them at war with observable reality. Whether they can utter the word "climate" or not, the fire season will still be 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s, as a Forest Service employee pointed out to me. (A 2015 report from the agency confirmed his point). And last year will still have been the hottest year on record, following the one before that and the one before that—knowledge we have thanks to research from NASA and the federal National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.

The question that hovered over what is likely the last EPA-sponsored conference on environmental and health, at least for a while, was what would happen to all this research as Trump moves forward. In a luncheon keynote speech on Wednesday, Newt Gingrich seemed to acknowledge that the new president would likely cut at least some government funding for environmental research. Gingrich, whose fee for speaking at events in Washington, DC recently increased to $25,000 based on his "insight into Trump," urged scientists to "defend what you do." In his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks, Gingrich suggested that environmental scientists not dwell on the imminent decrease in government funding for their work but instead be cheered by the "enormous opportunity" to get private sector funding. The statement elicited a snort of derision from someone at a table near mine.

The extent to which Trump will decimate government efforts to protect people and the planet from climate change and other environmental problems remains to be seen. In the meantime, work continued. At the conference on Wednesday, a young woman gave out publications including a booklet called Science Matters from the EPA's display table. While a nearby giant screen flashed colorful aerial images from NASA satellites of shrinking sea ice in the arctic and global air pollution, she said, "we're just doing our jobs until we hear otherwise."

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Intercept.

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