Business leaders are making a push for moderation — and meeting with some success.
By JOSH DAWSEY and BEN WHITED, POLITICO
Wall Street titan Stephen Schwarzman has recently taken on a new, informal job: counselor to the president.
The CEO of Blackstone Group, who has known Trump for years, has become so close to the president that the two sometimes talk several times a week, covering everything from Chinese trade to tax policy to immigration.
White House and New York business officials say Schwarzman was critical to Trump keeping the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as the Dreamers program, with Trump making the decision after a call with the hedge fund billionaire. The two also recently chatted at Mar-a-Lago about a possible reorganization of the White House, two people familiar with the meeting say, though the conversation didn’t include specific names.
Schwarzman’s growing influence in Trump’s circle is welcome news to New York business leaders and moderate Republicans, who want the president to abandon his nationalist positions and embrace a more nonideological White House amid lagging poll ratings and infighting dominating the West Wing.
In private conversations, a number of Trump’s friends have told him he could be more popular — and accomplish more — if he embraced a moderate streak and listened to his business friends. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is trying to orchestrate more power for New York business types, particularly National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, while diminishing the power of chief strategist Steve Bannon, who drives the populist wing of the White House.
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“The president is a business person, so he’s very comfortable being around business people and he learns best by talking to people and observing things,” Schwarzman said in an interview after meeting on Tuesday with Trump and other business leaders. “I think he looks forward to these things and he likes being with business people who have run businesses that are bigger than his. It’s just a highly supportive environment, whether it’s Gary Cohn or Jared, certainly Steve Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross and Dina Powell, these are all people who’ve had very similar experiences.”
One executive in regular contact with West Wing officials said it’s encouraging that Trump appears to be embracing more pragmatic allies. “It seems like he’s relying now on nonideological people like Gary who have business experience and just know how to execute and get stuff done,” the executive said.
Any possible shift certainly comes with risks. Democrats are never likely to embrace Trump. And the president could alienate his core supporters after winning the election by catering to blue-collar workers, mocking Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches on Wall Street, and railing against the influence of elites and special interests.
Inside the White House, Bannon has at times clashed with Cohn and Kushner and has advocated for more strident positions. Cohn’s rising influence has already attracted attacks from Bannon allies, and Kushner has drawn negative attention from conservative blogs. Several Trump campaign veterans have lambasted Cohn’s influence in the White House. “He would be an Obama appointee at best,” one longtime adviser said.
Whether Trump will be willing to modulate significantly from the scorched-earth strategy that won him the White House, and whether he wants more discipline in the White House, remains unclear. What has attracted him to much of his base is railing against trade deals that Wall Street executives like, building a massive border wall and implementing stricter immigration policies that they don’t like. And he often avoids even the best-crafted advice by firing off an errant tweet.
Another executive said a summit last week with CEOs created good feelings about the White House, but some of that changed later in the week when Cohn suggested he would support separating investment and retail banking on Wall Street, something big banks strongly oppose.
“Yes, everyone left that meeting feeling good about the White House and the agenda and then we wake up on Thursday and Gary is saying he wants to break us up,” the executive said. “It could be that he sort of backed into it because it was in the Republican platform and that nothing will happen with it, but it still bothered people.”
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This executive also said it was too soon to suggest Trump would really back away from ripping up existing trade deals or slapping tariffs on Mexico, China or other nations the president views as unfair competitors. “Trade in this administration is very complicated and there are so many players with different agendas jockeying for position,” the executive said.
Still, corporate executives who have attended White House meetings say they are becoming increasingly confident that Cohn, along with Kushner and senior White House adviser Dina Powell, also a former Goldman executive, have for the moment at least neutralized Trump’s more aggressively nationalistic advisers including Bannon and senior aide Stephen Miller. Cohn has become Trump’s preferred adviser as of late, several people say, as Bannon has faded.
And some business leaders are convinced the White House will change, “or look totally different in six months,” as one business executive said.
One senior White House official noted the quickly executed Syria action as an example of the administration operating at a higher professional level and said it should give the outside world, including corporate America, confidence about improvements in West Wing functioning.
At a recent meeting with New York CEOs, Cohn signaled he would be in charge of infrastructure and tax reform, a reassuring sign to these leaders, and told them the White House had much in common with Wall Street and real estate developers. He also said the White House wouldn’t impose a tax on corporate jets, including one they flew down on. Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary and a former Goldman banker, is also working on taxes, along with Craig Phillips, a former BlackRock executive and a registered Democrat.
More than a dozen aides spent hours last week with the CEO group, which included schwarzman and Citigroup’s Michael Corbat, promising them common ground on infrastructure, tax reform and charter schools. Several said they were worried about meeting with Trump, whom they consider to be unpredictable.
But Cohn told the group there was agreement on much of their agenda — and that he was their point man. “We know who Gary is,” one executive said.
Trump called the CEOs “killers” and “my friends.”
“It was a reassuring meeting,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, the lobbying group that brought the delegation to the White House. “They clearly consider it an important constituency. They turned out everybody.”
Several of the executives said Trump and his aides had closely read their briefing papers, and they were far more impressed with the president than with Speaker Paul Ryan, who seemed to ramble on tax policy. One person familiar with their meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was brief, and he “basically just told us that the border adjustment tax was dead.”
The meeting last week was also not a one-off. In recent weeks, Trump has frequently had top executives to the White House — they have made more than 20 visits since Jan. 20.
And the gatherings are already having policy impact. Trump is now saying he will not name China a currency manipulator later this month, a reversal that will please executives worried about angering Beijing and potentially starting a trade war. Trump this week also suggested he would consider keeping Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, something that could enrage conservatives but please financiers.
Executives say they expect the end result to be policies more in line with Wall Street’s way of thinking on immigration, infrastructure and especially trade, where Trump has taken a go-slow approach to tariffs and other punitive measures.
His aides have also asked automobile, manufacturing and banking executives what regulations they should eliminate. “They’ve never had a forum like this,” one senior administration official said. “We’ve done the listening and now we want to start engaging.”
The official gave an example of the midterm review in the Obama administration of fuel regulations for one, after automobile companies complained about it. “It certainly won’t be 100 percent of what they ask for, but we told them to come in with ones that are achievable. We’re working to help them,” the official said.
Kushner’s new Office of American Innovation, which has been mocked in Washington, impressed a number of the business executives. While several said they don’t think it will bring immediate change to a dysfunctional White House, it was a sign that he could influence the president and come up with better ideas on how to run the government more efficiently. Kushner and team have already approached some CEOs with big-ticket infrastructure ideas — and have told them they will listen.
A different senior administration official said the White House wanted to take a more moderate and less inflammatory position on issues and believed the White House would benefit from “nonideological business leaders with more day-to-day power.” They are working with outside CEOs on big potential infrastructure projects, “not just filling potholes and fixing runways,” this person said.
Some of the executives, including Chris Liddell and Reed Cordish, a fellow developer, are working full-time advising the White House but aren’t receiving compensation for their work.
“This is not a window-dressing activity,” the second administration official said. “We’ve all got way better things to do than bring people in here and have a nice photo op with the CEOs.”