Businessman and investor Carl Icahn is pictured at a news conference in New York, N.Y., Sept. 16, 2015.
Photo by Stephen Yang/The New York Times/Redux

Donald Trump invites trouble with his team’s newest billionaire

Headed into yesterday, there were already four billionaires on Team Trump – Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Linda McMahon, and Donald Trump himself – who’ll soon work alongside several multi-millionaires. The president-elect isn’t the least bit embarrassed by any of this; Trump seems impressed with his ability to recruit extremely wealthy people to work for him.

And with that in mind, a fifth billionaire joined the president-elect’s team yesterday.
Donald Trump has named billionaire investor Carl Icahn, a frequent critic of some Obama administration rules and a major fossil fuel investor, a special advisor on regulation, the president-elect’s transition team announced Wednesday.

Trump’s team said in a statement that the activist investor will aid him in an “individual capacity” rather than as a federal employee or special government employee.
Ordinarily, when a president-elect announces a new addition to his team, the transition office will note which office or agency he or she will help lead. Yesterday, however, Team Trump said Icahn will be the “Special Advisor to the President on Regulatory Reform.” At the end of a relatively long press statement, the transition office said Icahn “will not be serving as a federal employee or a Special Government Employee and will not have any specific duties.”

This matters: Icahn won’t face any reporting requirements and won’t have to put any distance between his investment portfolio and his undefined responsibilities to the Trump White House.

The potential for conflicts – and scandal – are hard to overstate.

Icahn, for example, is deeply interested in how the Securities and Exchange Commission will affect his investments, and Trump has given Icahn “a central role” in choosing the next chairman of the SEC. Icahn is also concerned about what the Environmental Protection Agency might do with an oil refinery company he co-owns, and Trump put Icahn in a position to help choose the next EPA administrator.

Vox’s Matt Yglesias added yesterday, “[T]he monetary value of getting to influence federal regulatory policy when you already have $20 billion in outstanding investments is enormous…. [T]o have an active businessman formally in a position to do the regulatory work is a fairly open invitation to corruption. And that’s the kind of thing that past administrations have tried to avoid. But since Donald Trump himself is tied up in unprecedented conflicts of interest, that apparently lowers the bar for the rest of his team too.”

Matt’s take may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s really not. Icahn, who’s vague job will require no confirmation process and who’ll answer to no one except Trump, will tackle “regulatory reform” – which may very well include changes to existing policies that will affect the enterprises he continues to own.

Or put another away, Trump appears to have invited an unaccountable billionaire ally to help rewrite regulations that may directly benefit his own bottom line. If there’s a defense for this, I can’t think of it.


Corruption, Culture of Corruption and Donald Trump

Donald Trump invites trouble with his team's newest billionaire