The Real Story Behind The Heartland Institute’s Role In The Trump Admin

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Have you read The Washington Post lately? If so, you probably read about a “fringe” group of global warming deniers working behind the scenes to push President Donald Trump’s administration ever farther to the right.

WaPo depicted the conservative Heartland Institute’s November meeting in Houston, Texas, as full of activists unhappy with the Trump administration’s progress on undoing liberal climate policies.

Heartland held similar meetings in June and September. Details from those meetings were also leaked to the press, cultivating a media narrative of a fringe conservative group pulling the strings behind Trump’s policies from the Paris accord withdrawal, to opening lands to drilling and eliminating climate programs.

Jim Lakely, Heartland’s communications director, isn’t surprised with the media’s take, he told The Daily Caller News Foundation. This is part of an effort to delegitimize Heartland’s work and drive a wedge between them and the Trump administration, he said.

“The tone of it is that the climate realist right isn’t happy with Trump’s progress,” Lakely told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Every meeting participant — except one cited many times by WaPo — was ecstatic with Trump’s progress.

“It’s a complete 180 from what Hillary Clinton would have done,” Lakely said. “I think it’s remarkable what Trump has been able to get done.”

That’s not the impression you’re left with after reading WaPo’s recent expose. In fact, Lakely has taken issue with the media’s portrayal of Heartland’s activities, portraying the Chicago-based think tank as a fringe group that pushes secretive policy memos at closed-door meetings.

On the contrary, Heartland has always been public about its ultimate goals — to keep global warming alarmists from winning the public debate. The group has certainly not been coy about its public policy goals of rolling back former President Barack Obama’s administration’s global warming regulatory regime.

Heartland even published online an energy and climate policy checklist for Trump shortly after Trump’s 2016 election win.

Always A Target

Heartland CEO Joe Bast isn’t surprised with the media’s portrayal of Heartland. Environmental activists have been attacking the Heartland Institute for years over their skeptical stance on man-made global warming.

“The left demonizes us,” Bast told TheDCNF, referring to environmentalist campaigns to smear them in the media. The Illinois-based think tank began seriously critiquing climate science in 2007, and since then, they’ve only attracted more vitriol from liberal groups.

Heartland is now in the spotlight for its influence with the Trump administration.

WaPo claimed audio recordings and a three-page document obtained from Heartland’s Houston meeting “highlight the extent to which those on the right are pushing Cabinet members … to enact even more sweeping changes,” according to an article published Nov. 15.

The meeting showed “how conservatives are working to place key allies in top policy posts in the White House and elsewhere, including on boards that help guide federal policy,” the paper argued.

However, Bast said that’s not how the group operates. The meetings convened to prepare scientists and economists who could do a good job in federal agencies or on advisory boards.

The Red Team

That was not the only time Heartland says its activities have been mischaracterized by the press.

The Huffington Post in October claimed to have published a list of possible candidates for a “Red Team” exercise proposed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt. An EPA official leaked the list to the Climate Investigations Center, that is led by former Greenpeace campaigner Kert Davies.

Global warming skeptics have advocated for a “Red Team” approach to climate science for years, mimicking a popular exercise used in military and intelligence circles. Pruitt backed a “Red Team” exercise to test the strength of the global warming scientific “consensus.”

HuffPo painted the list as full of “climate deniers” that Heartland wanted to get in government as part of an effort “to undermine the conclusion that climate change is a real problem.” Earlier this year, the Washington Examiner reported that Heartland was helping the Trump administration field a science “Red Team.”

Heartland has been operating its own “Red Team” for years, Lakely said ,so it would make sense that EPA would ask them for names. Heartland organizes annual climate science conferences and regularly puts out detailed scientific reports by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change — a foil to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“We’re the world’s leading think tank on this issue,” Lakely said. “We’re here to provide help.”

But Lakely called HuffPo’s report fake news. The list obtained was for a June meeting in Washington, D.C., Lakely said. Those attendees were initially slated to attend an EPA science integrity meeting — until it got canceled.

The group met anyway. The meeting was kept off the record so attendees could speak freely, and while lots of topics related to Trump administration climate and energy policy were discussed, “There was no real agenda or instructing people to do A, B or C,” Lakely said.

The meeting went well, so Heartland planned more private meetings to include experts they had previously presented to the Trump administration to either bring into government or onto advisory boards.

Heartland likely referred many of the names on the list to EPA, but not specifically for a “Red Team.” Bast stressed that while EPA officials did ask for a list of possible candidates, Heartland never actually told EPA who to pick or played a role in any hiring decisions.

“The real way we measure our impact is through public opinion surveys,” Bast said, referring to proprietary surveys the group has done to measure public attitudes on global warming.

“I have never met Scott Pruitt,” Bast said. “We’ve always tried to remain arm’s length from politics. It’s never been a priority for us to engage in politics.”

Pruitt, however, has heard of the Heartland Institute. Bast said he’s been told by EPA officials his group’s recommendations to sit on agency science boards made it to Pruitt’s desk. Pruitt even put together a video message for Heartland’s Houston meeting — it was published online on EPA’s Youtube channel.

Friends In High Places

On the other hand, Bast said Heartland has been able to influence federal policy through allies in the Trump administration.

One of those allies was former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon sought advice from Heartland on key policy issues, including pressing Trump to keep his promise to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, Bast said.

“Steve was an important channel for us to the White House,” Bast said, adding he frequently talked with Bannon about the Paris accord and executive orders to overturn Obama administration climate policies.

Trump announced in June he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. Bast was present at the White House when Trump made his announcement. There’s even a photo of Bast huddling with Bannon after Trump’s speech that day.

“It’s changed with Steve Bannon leaving,” Bast said, though he said Heartland’s new president former GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp has been invaluable in finding new allies in the administration.

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