President Donald Trump announced he would fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change, eviscerating a signature achievement of the Obama administration.
Trump’s decision came after weeks of intense lobbying from both sides of the Paris accord debate. Corporations, environmentalists and Democrats urged Trump to stick with the deal, while Republicans and conservative groups pushed for withdrawal.
More intense was the debate within the White House itself. Key staffers were lined on both sides of the issue, making Trump’s decision to withdraw a lengthier process than many anticipated.
While the decision was ultimately Trump’s to make, there were many people working behind the scenes and in public to make sure the president kept his campaign promise to “cancel” the climate accord.
Conservative groups, White House officials and Republican lawmakers worked behind the scenes and in the media as part of the “resistance” movement to the Paris accord, which the Obama administration joined in 2016.
They worked to nudge Trump in the direction of withdrawing from Paris, constantly reminding him of the legal risks to not fulfilling his promise to supporters.
A letter from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and 21 other top Republican lawmakers in late May “reinforced Trump’s instincts to withdraw” from the Paris agreement, Axios reported, but key administration personnel and conservative heavy-hitters also played a role.
When Trump officially announced his withdrawal from the Paris accord Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt walked up to the podium in the Rose Garden to speak. Many in the media saw this as his victory.
Politico reports Pruitt “used his new post as EPA administrator to orchestrate an aggressive campaign to marshal conservative opposition to the Paris agreement.” That campaign included having EPA staffers urge conservative groups to go public with their concerns about the Paris agreement.
Pruitt was the only Trump administration official to publicly bash the accord. In TV appearances in April and May, Pruitt called Paris a “bad deal” that put America “last.”
“Paris is something that we need to really look at closely. It’s something we need to exit in my opinion,” Pruitt told Fox News in April.
Pruitt’s public criticisms of the Paris agreement bolstered conservative groups and Republican officials who opposed sticking with an international deal that never got Senate approval.
But it wasn’t Pruitt’s victory alone.
Trump’s domestic energy policy adviser Mike Cantanzaro worked to nudge the president to withdraw from Paris, according to a source familiar with the efforts. But General counsel Donald McGahn was “probably the most pivotal voice” in the White House advocating for a withdrawal from the Paris agreement, according to the source.
“We were having trouble getting traction on the argument that the agreement poses some legal risk,” the source said. “Until he joined the conversation.”
During two closed-door meetings in late April and early May, McGahn raised concerns with Trump about the legal risks of staying party to the Paris agreement, Politico reported. McGahn warned the U.S. may not be able to adjust its pledge to cut emissions and that environmentalists could use the Paris agreement to undermine Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
McGahn’s interjection “shocked” Department of State lawyers who largely made the case for staying in the Paris agreement, according to Politico. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly came out in favor of the Paris agreement during his confirmation hearing in January.
Cantanzaro, McGahn and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon led the administration faction opposed to the Paris agreement. They ended up butting heads with pro-Paris advisers Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Energy Secretary Rick Perry also favored staying in the Paris accord.
In early May, the heads of 44 free market groups sent a letter to Trump, urging him to withdraw from the agreement. The coalition was led by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).
CEI was “the energy” and “enabled the issue to stay high profile in the White House for months,” an administration source told Axios.
In May, CEI launched an online petition and ad campaign to remind Trump of his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris accord, and AEA circulated another petition calling for Trump to withdraw from the agreement.
CEI senior fellows Chris Horner and Marlo Lewis published a report detailing the legal risks of remaining in the accord. CEI’s Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s EPA transition team, was also public about his opposition to the Paris agreement.
The source told Axios that CEI also “helped generate” the letter from Senate Republicans that reportedly gave Trump the final nudge he needed to announce a withdrawal from Paris. The letter reminded Trump why he opposed Paris in the first place — it didn’t put America first.
About a week before Trump made his decision, McConnell led a group of 22 GOP Senators urging Trump to withdraw from the Paris agreement. McConnell’s letter to Trump reportedly “reinforced” the president’s pre-existing inclination to leave Paris.
“I think there’s a lot of credit due to a lot of people. It’s been a tough fight, and both sides have done about all that can be done,” a source in the conservative movement told TheDCNF.
Update: A previous version of this study misidentified a White House staffer as being in favor of exiting the Paris agreement. That has been corrected.
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