During the Presidential primaries, Donald Trump mocked his Republican rivals as “puppets” for flocking to a secretive fund-raising session sponsored by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire co-owners of the energy conglomerate Koch Industries. Affronted, the Koch brothers, whose political spending has made their name a shorthand for special-interest clout, withheld their financial support from Trump. But on Tuesday night David Koch was reportedly among the revellers at Trump’s victory party in a Hilton Hotel in New York.
Trump campaigned by attacking the big donors, corporate lobbyists, and political-action committees as “very corrupt.” In a tweet on October 18th, he promised, “I will Make Our Government Honest Again—believe me. But first I’m going to have to #DrainTheSwamp.” His DrainTheSwamp hashtag became a rallying cry for supporters intent on ridding Washington of corruption. But Ann Ravel, a Democratic member of the Federal Elections Commission who has championed reform of political money, says that “the alligators are multiplying.”
Many of Trump’s transition-team members are the corporate insiders he vowed to disempower. On Friday, Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, the new transition-team chair, announced that Marc Short, who until recently ran Freedom Partners, the Kochs’ political-donors group, would serve as a “senior adviser.” The influence of the Kochs and their allies is particularly clear in the areas of energy and the environment. The few remarks Trump made on these issues during the campaign reflected the fondest hopes of the oil, gas, and coal producers. He vowed to withdraw from the international climate treaty negotiated last year in Paris, remove regulations that curb carbon emissions, legalize oil drilling and mining on federal lands and in seas, approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and weaken the Environmental Protection Agency.
For policy and personnel advice regarding the Department of Energy, Trump is relying on Michael McKenna, the president of the lobbying firm MWR Strategies. McKenna’s clients include Koch Companies Public Sector, a division of Koch Industries. According to Politico, McKenna also has ties to the American Energy Alliance and its affiliate, the Institute for Energy Research. These nonprofit groups purport to be grassroots organizations, but they run ads advocating corporate-friendly energy policies, without disclosing their financial backers. In 2012, Freedom Partners gave $1.5 million to the American Energy Alliance.
Michael Catanzaro, a partner at the lobbying firm CGCN Group, is the head of Trump’s energy transition team, and has been mentioned as a possible energy czar. Among his clients are Koch Industries and Devon Energy Corporation, a gas-and-oil company that has made a fortune from vertical drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Another widely discussed candidate is Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of the shale-oil company Continental Resources, who is a major contributor to the Kochs’ fund-raising network. Wenona Hauter, of Food and Water Watch, says that Hamm has “done all he can to subvert the existing rules and regulations.”
Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate-change skeptic, heads Trump’s transition team for the E.P.A. Ebell runs the energy-and-environmental program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an anti-regulatory Washington think tank that hides its sources of financial support but has been funded by fossil-fuel companies, including Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries. David Schnare, a self-described “free-market environmentalist” who has accused the E.P.A. of having “blood on its hands,” is a member of the E.P.A. working group. Schnare is the director of the Center for Energy and the Environment at the Thomas Jefferson Institute, part of a nationwide consortium of anti-government, pro-industry think tanks. He is also the general counsel at the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, which has received funding from coal companies. In 2011, Schnare started hounding the climate scientist Michael Mann, who had been a professor at the University of Virginia, by filing public-records requests demanding to see his unpublished research and his private e-mails. The legal wrangling tied up Mann’s work until 2014, when the Virginia Supreme Court ordered Schnare to desist. The Union of Concerned Scientists has described these actions against climate scientists as “harassment.”
Norman Eisen, who devised strict conflict-of-interest rules while acting as Obama’s ethics czar, says, “If you have people on the transition team with deep financial ties to the industries to be regulated, it raises questions about whether they are serving the public interest or their own interests.” He ruled out Obama transition-team members who would have had a conflict of interest in their assigned areas, or even the appearance of one. “We weren’t perfect,” he said. “But we tried to level the playing field because, let’s face it, in the Beltway nexus of corporations and dark money, lobbyists are the delivery mechanism for special-interest influence. ”
Questions to Trump’s transition team about its conflict-of-interest rules went unanswered, as did questions to the lobbyists and industry heads involved. But the composition of the group runs counter to a set of anti-lobbyist proposals that Trump released in October, to be enacted in his first hundred days. It called for a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave public office, and a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying for a foreign government.
The tenth item on the list of proposals is the Clean Up Corruption in Washington Act, which would implement “new ethics reforms to Drain the Swamp and reduce the corrupting influence of special interests on our politics.” Trevor Potter, who served as the commissioner of the F.E.C. under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and is now the president of the Campaign Legal Center, described Trump’s ethics proposals as “quite interesting, and quite helpful.” He was puzzled, though, by the vagueness of the “Drain the Swamp” act. “It’s a complete black box so far,” Potter said.
Potter wondered if Trump’s lack of specificity reflected internal divisions. He noted that Don McGahn, who served as the Trump campaign’s attorney, is an opponent of almost all campaign-finance restrictions. “Many on the transition team are registered lobbyists who are deeply invested in the system Trump says he wants to change,” Potter said. “It looks like the lobbyists and special interests are already taking over.”
By Jane Mayer