Donald Trump’s chief strategist and EPA administrator maneuvered for months to get the president to exit the Paris climate accord, shrewdly playing to his populist instincts and publicly pressing the narrative that the nearly 200-nation deal was effectively dead — boxing in the president on one of his highest-profile decisions to date.
Steve Bannon and Scott Pruitt have sought to outsmart the administration’s pro-Paris group of advisers, including Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who were hoping the president could be swayed by a global swell of support for the deal from major corporations, U.S. allies, Al Gore and even the pope. But some of that pro-Paris sentiment wound up being surprisingly tepid, according to White House aides who had expected that European leaders would make a stronger case during Trump’s trip abroad earlier this month.
Those who want Trump to remain also face a hurdle that may be insurmountable: The president has long believed, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. is getting a raw deal under the accord, and it would prove nearly impossible to change his mind.
The internal reality show culminated in a rush of leaks Wednesday from administration officials saying Trump was on the verge of pulling the plug on U.S. participation in history’s most comprehensive global climate agreement. But some White House aides held out the prospect that the president still might take the middle course that Ivanka Trump and others had advocated — staying in the deal but drastically scaling back the Obama administration’s non-binding carbon cleanup promises.
Pruitt and Bannon want Trump to make a clean break by withdrawing from the agreement entirely. And in recent months, they made sure Trump heard from a parade of conservative leaders and Republican lawmakers who raised concerns that the deal would hobble his pro-fossil-fuel energy agenda.
"We made very much the economic message argument," said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, whose group wrote letters to the White House and spoke to senior staff. "It was bad for the U.S. economy. It would stifle economic growth and the United States should withdraw."
As the news of the impending decision spread Wednesday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus began calling and fielding calls from lawmakers, indicating that the U.S. was unlikely to stay in the agreement, one person familiar with the conversations said. One White House official said the president’s team was furiously working on an announcement of the withdrawal.
Trump refused to confirm the news, telling reporters only that his verdict was coming "very soon." But administration officials said Trump was always leaning toward withdrawing — and, though they cautioned he could change his mind, he is expected to do so.
If he withdraws, Paris’ foes will have Pruitt and Bannon to thank.
One Republican close to the White House called it the “classic split” and said conservative activists had flooded the White House in recent weeks, after seeing increasing chatter that Trump may stay in. This person said Bannon and Pruitt worked quietly to make sure Trump was hearing their side and touched base occasionally on political strategy to woo him.
“You had the New Yorkers against it, and all the campaign loyalists for it,” this person said, referring to the push to withdraw. “When the New Yorkers get involved, it gets complicated for Trump and everyone else around him.”
Pruitt and Bannon have told others repeatedly for months that Trump will pull out of the agreement, as they aggressively pushed a narrative that they hoped would prove to be true, even as White House aides continued to debate the issue.
“Some of the debate was for show to help the moderates feel like they had their say,” said one person who has spoken to Pruitt. “Pruitt has believed all along that this was never in doubt.”
Pruitt, who frequently attacked the EPA’s regulations in court when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, used his new post as EPA administrator to orchestrate an aggressive campaign to marshal conservative opposition to the Paris agreement.
He bashed the deal during a closed-door April meeting of the National Mining Association’s executive committee, telling the group that the agreement would hurt the economy. Pruitt’s staff also urged lawmakers and conservative groups to publicly criticize the agreement, sources familiar with the issue told POLITICO, which had the effect of increasing public pressure on Trump.
Bannon similarly argued in meetings with Trump and his team that the president would be breaking his campaign promise to “cancel” the agreement if he decided to remain. And he argued that the accord is a bad deal for the United States because other countries aren’t doing enough to curb their emissions.
Pruitt and Bannon’s anti-Paris campaign was meant to counter a separate offensive by members of the administration who supported staying in the pact, including Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
In recent months, Ivanka Trump set up a process in which the president would regularly hear from people who supported remaining in the agreement, according to administration officials.
The remain camp believed, perhaps naively, that Trump could be influenced by the support the Paris deal has received from major corporations, including Exxon Mobil, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson led for more than a decade.
“Ivanka is doing what she can to get him to stay," one official said. "But that doesn’t mean he’s going to do it."
White House aides outlined a plan to remain in the agreement while weakening former President Barack Obama’s pledge to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions. They made the case that Trump could use the good will generated from remaining to negotiate better economic incentives for fossil fuels, and they even won the buy-in of several coal companies that detested Obama’s climate policies.
They hoped European leaders could persuade Trump he would risk damaging diplomatic relations if he withdrew. Ivanka Trump also brought Gore to Trump Tower to try to sway her father’s mind during the presidential transition, and Pope Francis handed the president a copy of his papal encyclical on climate change when the two men met at the Vatican last week.
Trump took calls from a parade of business leaders and foreign leaders in recent weeks, most pressing him to remain, according to a senior administration official — and the calls continued on Wednesday.
“He had tremendous pressure from international leaders, from members of his own Cabinet and advisers in the international sphere not to pull out of the accord because of the perceived loss of face,” said McIntosh, the Club for Growth president.
But while the leaders of G-7 nations all pressed Trump to remain in the agreement during last week’s summit in Italy, Paris supporters in the White House have privately groused that they didn’t make an aggressive enough case.
European officials countered they tried not to push Trump too much during the meetings, believing that a hard-sell could backfire. And they were buoyed by early signals from White House officials ahead of the summit that Trump was open to remaining.
Indeed, European officials received a series of mixed messages from Trump’s team during the summit. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, a Paris supporter and the only U.S. official permitted to attend meetings with G-7 leaders, told reporters that Trump was “evolving” on climate change, which many interpreted to mean that he would remain.
White House officials chalked up Cohn’s comments to Trump’s habit of echoing the perspective of the last person he talked to. By that time, Bannon and other opponents of the agreement had returned the United States. But Trump’s decision to delay a final verdict on the agreement gave Pruitt and Bannon a final opportunity to make their case. Pruitt met with Trump to discuss Paris on Tuesday.
Most European officials were unwilling to comment about the prospect that Trump will withdraw, as they have not yet received official word from the White House and they are still holding out hope that the president will change his mind.
The officials have already begun looking to other countries for support on climate change, with the European Union set to promise deeper cooperation with China. Some officials have even adopted a new informal nickname for the major remaining countries that support action on climate change: the G-6.
Some Trump administration officials were reeling on Wednesday after the news first broke that Trump was prepared to withdraw.
Trump had not officially told his entire team of senior aides he was considering leaving the agreement Wednesday when news leaked out. “Everyone assumed that’s what was going to happen, but we weren’t called all in and told, ‘Oh, we’re putting this story out today,” one person said.
Having learned a lesson after Trump changed his mind about pulling out of NAFTA, administration officials cautioned against definitive reporting, warning that the president is notoriously fickle. As administration officials began tamping down reports that Trump’s decision was final, White House aides were swamped with calls, emails and texts from lobbyists and diplomats seeking clarification.
Officials close to Trump sometimes leak information before it is final — hoping to back him into a corner, or believing that comments during a private meeting represent his ultimate view. White House officials put out word in April that he was pulling out of NAFTA, even though Trump had not made up his mind, and news leaked during the campaign that he would pick Mike Pence as his running mate even as he weighed other candidates.
"Sometimes people close to Trump put things into the media environment to see how he’ll react to it," one adviser said. "If your idea gets good coverage, it’s likely to help him decide to go with what you’re saying."
One of the biggest lingering questions: If he withdraws, how will Trump do it?
He could abide by the formal procedures in the underlying text of the agreement, which mandate that a formal withdrawal will not go into effect until at least Nov. 4, 2020. Or he could pull out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the underlying 1992 treaty that governs the negotiations, which would allow for a speedier pullout — a far more radical step that would see the U.S. abstain from the entire climate negotiating process.
He could also declare that the agreement is a treaty, which would require a two-thirds-majority ratification vote in the Senate that would certainly fail.
Whatever he does, supporters of the climate agreement expect a harsh reaction from the United States’ friends if the country pulls out.
“I think the diplomatic backlash will be worse than it was when the U.S. rejected Kyoto,” said Susan Biniaz, the State Department’s longtime former climate change lawyer, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to spurn the 1997 Kyoto climate agreement.
One former U.S. official agreed: “Will global leaders trust the U.S. to negotiate a climate treaty ever again? After Kyoto and Paris, who will trust us to keep our word as a nation? Our credibility is gone."