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It could have been an episode of The Apprentice. On a summer day in 2016, a group of businessmen and women descended on Trump Tower in Manhattan. They exited their black SUVs and rode the golden elevators to the 26th floor, where they assembled in a boardroom and awaited the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
A year earlier, surely no one in that meeting had the faintest notion that Donald Trump would make a credible run for president. But by the spring, he’d dispatched Low-Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted and the rest, and was well on his way to securing enough delegates to clinch the nomination. The corporate leaders who formed one of the GOP’s most reliable constituencies faced a dilemma: Get behind Trump or find yourself potentially frozen out of the next administration, in the unlikely event that he won.
Trump took his seat at the head of a long table and thanked his guests for coming. It was the inaugural meeting of the Trump Leadership Council, a kitchen Cabinet and sounding board featuring representatives from many of America’s biggest industries: energy, finance, transportation, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, defense, construction and health care. The men and women around him were told the meeting would be totally confidential. The handful of Fortune 500 executives in attendance were outnumbered by leaders of privately held corporations and little-known companies that, under more normal circumstances, would never find themselves in a position to inform the thinking of the standard-bearer of a major political party. They weren’t the country-club, Chamber of Commerce types that had backed Bush and Rubio and Kasich; they were more on the fringe, including Obama-bashing coal barons, China-hating steel producers and modern-day oil-and-gas wildcatters. Both the largest potato producer and truck-stop operator were also there. “They weren’t conventional Republicans,” council member and Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore tells Rolling Stone. “They were more maverick business leaders.” Moore himself had carved out a position as the far right’s go-to economist, and has stirred up headlines saying things like “I’d get rid of a lot of these child-labor laws. I want people starting to work at 11, 12,” and that women shouldn’t be involved in sports unless they’re attractive.
In the three years since that inaugural meeting, the council’s impact has been seen across the administration. At the urging of coal and oil industry representatives, Trump’s EPA has systematically rolled back environmental protections and frozen new ones, affecting the air and water of thousands of people. The council’s trade hard-liners have advised Trump to embrace tariffs in the trade war with China — a move that has put farms out of business and cost every family in America hundreds of dollars a year, according to one analysis, as a result of higher-priced goods. The National Association of Manufacturers, a lobby group for big business whose leader, Jay Timmons, was a council member, sent the Trump administration a wish list of 132 regulations that NAM members took issue with, including Obama’s signature climate change legislation, the Clean Power Plan, and the FCC’s net neutrality rule. A recent report by the watchdog group Public Citizen found that the Trump administration has moved to implement 64 percent of NAM’s recommendations.
The creation of the Trump Leadership Council back in 2016 went almost entirely unnoticed at the time. Until now, the members of the council have not been made public. But Rolling Stone obtained a complete list of the members and interviewed half a dozen people who attended and organized the council (the full list is published at the bottom of this article). Together, they form a lost chapter in the story of how Trump’s pro-industry, anti-regulation America First agenda became a reality.
“With Trump, we’ve had a corporate takeover of government with no parallel in American history,” says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Your research shows the seeds were planted early on in the campaign.”
The Trump Leadership Council was the brainchild of Harold Hamm. Hamm, who runs the Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company Continental Resources and is worth an estimated $11 billion, was one of the few business execs to back Trump early on. (He did not respond to requests for comment.) Hamm acted as an unofficial adviser to Trump’s campaign, and helped secure the final delegates needed to lock up the nomination in the final stretch of the 2016 Republican primary, according to one source familiar with Hamm’s role. (It was no coincidence, the source said, that Trump announced he’d crossed the delegate threshold before speaking at an oil-industry conference in North Dakota, and that the first person he thanked was his “very good friend” Harold Hamm.) The last of 13 children born to Oklahoma sharecroppers, Hamm was truly self-made and had little in common with Trump, yet the two men hit it off. Two of Hamm’s associates, Blu Hulsey and John McNabb, began assembling a list of corporate chiefs who would help shape Trump’s policies.
They discovered that much of Corporate America wasn’t jumping at the opportunity to associate with a candidate who demonized immigrants, mocked his opponents’ appearance and stoked conspiracy theories about their families. “Some people blanched,” one organizer recalls. “Some said they’d do it because he was the nominee.”
By June, they had pulled together a list of 48 people. Despite Trump’s campaign theme of draining the swamp in Washington, the list was stocked with industry representatives and registered lobbyists, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, then-president and CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, the banking industry’s lobbying group; John Lechleiter, then-CEO and chairman of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly; Jerry Howard, CEO of the National Association of Home Builders; and lobbyists for behemoth defense contractors Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Three of Trump’s economic advisers — Moore, then-CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow and economist Arthur Laffer — also joined.
The industry best represented on the council was energy — a who’s who of fossil-fuel champions, including coal baron Bob Murray of Murray Energy, who’s called climate change a “hoax”; Joe Craft of Alliance Resources, one of the U.S.’s biggest coal companies; and Larry Nichols of Devon Energy, the $11 billion oil giant that has long been a fierce opponent of climate regulations. Leading the energy team was, of course, Harold Hamm. “The council mirrors Trump’s presidency in that even the mainstream polluters wouldn’t be found on this council,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “You instead find people who are more extreme, more radical, more dangerous in their views — and who have been shaping Trump’s agenda since before he took office.”
Hamm, who never went to college, started his own oil company and pioneered the drilling technique known as horizontal fracking. “Climate change isn’t our biggest problem,” he said during his prime-time speaking slot at the 2016 Republican Convention. “It’s Islamic terrorism.” A dean at the University of Oklahoma accused him of pressuring the school to dismiss scientists studying links between fracking and earthquakes. (Hamm denied this.) Hamm’s goal is to make America energy-independent from the rest of the world. “We can be the Saudi Arabia of oil and natural gas in the 21st century,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. To do that, the federal government needed to get off the backs of energy producers like him — meaning less oversight by the EPA and the ability to drill on federal land controlled by the Department of the Interior. Hamm and an industry front group he co-founded, the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance, have led the fight to protect longstanding tax loopholes worth billions to the oil and gas industry.
After decades of steering clear of politics, Hamm began giving generously in the late 2000s and served as Mitt Romney’s top energy adviser in 2012. He gave $1 million to groups aligned with the Koch brothers. Back in Oklahoma, he donated the maximum to the industry-friendly 2014 attorney-general campaign for Scott Pruitt, who Trump later tapped to head the EPA. Hamm had first met the president four years earlier, when he visited Trump Tower and left with a collection of Trump ties. He wore one on the cover of Forbes, which pleased Trump so much that he sent Hamm a fawning letter (and more ties). Trump calls Hamm the “king of energy.”
The purpose of the Trump Leadership Council was not only to advise Trump but also to stump for his campaign and his policies in TV appearances, at the upcoming convention and more. “As you recall, there were few business leaders willing to go on the record in support of Trump’s campaign,” says Dan DiMicco, the former chairman of Nucor Corp., a North Carolina-based steel company, and a member of the council. “We were a group of his supporters willing to be out explaining and supporting his campaign.”
With Hamm seated to Trump’s right and McNabb to his left at that first meeting, Trump’s starting point, several attendees told me, was simple: What laws do you want to see repealed, what regulations unwound? This was typical fare coming from any presidential nominee, but Trump of course was different. His campaign was in many ways a blank slate. He didn’t run with a policy agenda in mind and had no overarching ideological framework. And because he had such a slim political network to tap, he was indebted to the people at Trump Tower that day offering to help. “Trump was very aware of who put their neck out on the line for him early,” one attendee told me.
Moore expected Trump to stick around the meeting for a brief period and then make his exit. Instead, he stayed the entire time, quizzing representatives from each sector and taking notes. “In my entire career of doing this — we do it every four years, every presidential cycle — I have not given a policy briefing directly to a candidate like that,” says Jerry Howard of the home-builders association. Mostly what Trump heard from the attendees was that Obama had gone crazy with regulation and was hurting their growth, if not running them out of business. They backed the idea of overhauling the tax code, but even more than that they wanted to see Trump take aim at Obama’s regulations.
“Whether it’s community banks or the coal industry or construction, it was pretty universal that the regulatory structure had become a deterrent to growth,” Moore says. “That had an impact on Trump’s thinking to prioritize deregulation if he got into office.”
The council’s influence on Trump was immediate. The word “regulation” hadn’t appeared once in his 2015 announcement speech, but in the summer of 2016, slashing regulations became one of Trump’s new rallying cries on the campaign trail. He called regulation “one of the greatest job killers of them all” and claimed excessive red tape cost the country $2 trillion a year — a figure produced by the National Association of Manufacturers. If elected, he went on to say, he would do away with 70 percent of all federal regulations. He was especially critical of the EPA and called for “complete American energy independence,” a favorite Hamm talking point.
The council met again at the Cleveland Browns’ football stadium, during the Republican Convention in July 2016, and went on to produce a series of issue-focused white papers on energy, taxes and banking, according to Moore. “They were blueprints for a lot of Trump’s agenda,” Moore says. “Those issues were highly discussed, and Trump ended up using a lot of that data for his whole agenda.” (Moore declined to share the documents.)
If joining the Leadership Council was a gamble, the executives saw their early bet on Trump pay off handsomely. (The White House declined to comment.) DiMicco, the former steel executive and longtime China critic, was put in charge of the transition team for the U.S. Trade Representative and later named to a trade advisory board by Trump. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who at the council’s first meeting had led a discussion about how to replace Obamacare, was picked to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (and was later forced out over a spending scandal). Dr. Mark Esper, a vice president at defense contractor Raytheon, was named secretary of the Army in 2017. “It’s the best time that we’ve ever seen for the defense industry,” Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy gushed last year. (At the president’s urging, Congress increased the military’s already-bloated budget, and Trump has sped up the process for approving arms deals.) And Trump publicly weighed nominating Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve Board this spring, but the idea was dropped after even Senate Republicans scoffed at Moore’s record.
DiMicco saw his pro-tariff position elevated inside the White House with the appointment of an ally named Peter Navarro. Navarro had written books critical of U.S. trade policy with China and received funding from DiMicco’s company, Nucor, for a documentary titled Death by China. After an internal battle pitting Navarro, DiMicco and the self-described America Firsters against National Economic Council director and former Goldman Sachs banker Gary Cohn and his allies, the America Firsters prevailed. In March 2018, Trump officially imposed nearly $3 billion in tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and has been escalating the trade war ever since. As of June, Trump had approved tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S. “It’s unprecedented,” says David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This is, in modern times, quite extraordinary. It’s been decades since the U.S. has done anything like this.”
But probably no industry got a president friendlier to its cause than fossil fuels. Trump’s first EPA director, Pruitt, was more than willing to do the industry’s bidding; while Oklahoma AG, he once copied-and-pasted a document written by Devon Energy onto his official letterhead and sent it to the EPA (which he sued more than a dozen times).
Craft, of Alliance Resources, met with Pruitt at least seven times during Pruitt’s first 14 months at the EPA, according to official calendars. Pruitt even traveled to Craft’s hometown of Hazard, Kentucky, to announce his plan to gut Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would phase out the use of coal. Bob Murray of Murray Energy submitted to the administration a 16-point “action plan” on company letterhead to revive the coal industry; within a year, Trump officials had moved to implement more than half of them, including killing the Clean Power Plan and withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. EPA head Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s replacement and a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, has moved forward with weakening methane-emissions protections, mercury regulations and fuel-efficiency standards for cars. “They have attacked safeguards anchored in science that protect collectively tens of thousands of lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks,” says Vickie Patton, general counsel at Environmental Defense Fund, “and they’ve done it at the urging of the economic interests of the few.”
The Trump Leadership Council eventually went the way of most advisory boards, members told me, atrophying and going dormant as the new administration found its footing, but not before members and their companies gave just over $3 million to Trump’s inauguration. By late 2017, the council was rebranded the American Leadership Council, with Hamm as chairman and his oil-and-gas colleague John McNabb as vice chair, to pressure Congress to deliver on Trump’s America First agenda.
The council’s influence is felt to this day, with members serving in the administration — Larry Kudlow, the CNBC host, replaced Cohn as Trump’s top economic adviser — or guiding the president in an unofficial capacity, part of the crew of “outfluencers” the president frequently calls on for advice. One lobbyist recalled White House staffers complaining about Trump calling DiMicco to talk trade. Moore told me that Hamm, who in 2017 was named to the board of a dark-money group helping to re-elect Trump, visits the White House “often.”
Whatever happens in 2020, Trump’s all-out assault on regulations will long outlive his presidency, whether it’s four or eight years. At a time when the climate crisis threatens the future of humanity, Trump and his corporate backers have taken the country in the opposite direction. “This administration’s agenda was set well before Trump was elected,” says Brune of the Sierra Club. “Just about any safeguard to protect the country’s air, water and climate is up for sale. And if it makes Trump’s polluter friends happy, that’s what he’s promised to do and what he’s going to do.”
Trump Leadership Council list obtained by Rolling Stone:
Aerospace and Defense
Dave Melcher, President and Chief Executive Officer, Aerospace Industries Association
John Bonsell, Vice President, Government Affairs, SAIC
General Leo Brooks, Vice President, Government Operations, Boeing Company
Steven Cortese, Executive Vice President, Washington Operations, DRS Technologies
Dr. Mark Esper, Vice President, Government Relations, Raytheon
Blake Larson, Chief Operating Officer, Orbital ATK
David Manke, Vice President, International Government Relations, United Technologies
Robert Rangel, Senior Vice President, Washington Operations, Lockheed Martin
Michael Strianese, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, L3
Mitch Waldman, Corporate Vice President, Government and Customer Relations, Huntington Ingalls
Banking, Tech, Trade, and Commerce
Tim Pawlenty, President and Chief Executive Officer, Financial Services Roundtable
Scott Asplundh, Chief Executive Officer, Asplundh Tree Expert
Ted Austell, Vice President, Government Operations, Boeing Company
Roy Bailey, Chief Executive Officer, Giuliani Deason Capital Interests
Steve Brooks, President and Chief Executive Officer, Phoenix American Insurance Group
Jerry Howard, Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Home Builders
Larry Kudlow, Senior Contributor, CNBC
Art Laffer, Founder and Chairman, Laffer Associates
Hu Meena, President and Chief Executive Officer, C Spire
Rob Stien, Vice President, Government Relations and Regulatory Affairs, InterDigital Transportation
Jim Haslam, Founder, Pilot Corporation
David Grzebinski, President and Chief Executive Officer, Kirby Corporation
Christopher Lofgren, President and Chief Executive Officer, Schneider National
Tonn Ostergard, President and Chief Executive Officer, Crete Carriers
Jay Timmons, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Manufacturers
Dan Dimicco, Chairman Emeritus, Nucor Steel
Roddey Dowd, Chief Executive Officer, Charlotte Pipe & Foundry Company
Alan Landes, President and Chief Operating Officer, Herzog Contracting
John Lechleiter, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Eli Lilly
Kathleen Harrington, Division Chair, Government Relations, Mayo Clinic
Kelby Krabbenhoft, President and Chief Executive Officer, Sanford Health
Kristen Morris, Chief Government and Community Relations Officer, Cleveland Clinic
Tom Price, U.S. House of Representatives, Georgia
Marshall Snipes, Managing Director, Triton Value Partners Southwest
Harold Hamm, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Continental Resources
Meredith Allen, President and Chief Executive Officer, Staplcotn Marketing Cooperative
Chuck Conner, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Council of Farmers Cooperatives
Joe Craft, President, Chief Executive Officer and Director, Alliance Resources
Martin Craighead, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Baker Hughes
Dr. Howard Hill, Veterinarian, National Pork Producers Council
Donald Hoffman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Excel Services
Steve Moore, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
Bob Murray, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Murray Energy Corporation
Gene Nicholas, Director, Northern Plains Capital
Larry Nichols, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, Devon Energy
Ron Offutt, Founder and Chairman, R. D. Offutt Company
Ryan Weston, Executive Vice President, Florida, Texas and Hawaii Sugar Cane Growers
Bill Wilson, Distinguished University Professor, North Dakota State University