An Ohio electric utility and one of the country’s top coal companies had some well-placed help when pressing President Donald Trump for emergency federal assistance for the coal industry — his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
The companies wanted Trump to prevent utilities from closing economically ailing coal-fired power plants, using authorities normally designed to protect the U.S. electricity supply during emergencies. And as they made their case, they got support from the former Trump aide, who has remained in the president’s orbit despite being fired from his campaign more than a year ago.
Lewandowski denied in a message Friday that he is working for the companies, utility FirstEnergy and mining corporation Murray Energy. But his involvement in the issue alarmed some senior administration officials and others close to Trump, who saw his role as that of a lobbyist and believed he was being paid for the work.
Lewandowski spoke in support of the utility’s agenda at the White House and met with other senior administration officials on the issue this spring and summer, according to senior White House officials and records reviewed by POLITICO. Lewandowski was also integral in setting up meetings between Chuck Jones, the CEO of utility FirstEnergy, with Trump and other White House officials, according to the documents and officials. Lewandowski traveled aboard Air Force One during that period, sources said.
The Energy Department eventually decided that the action the companies sought would be inappropriate. But the companies had nearly succeeded: According to letters from Republican donor and coal magnate Robert Murray, CEO of the mining company Murray Energy, Trump twice said he supported requiring coal power plants run by a subsidiary of FirstEnergy to keep running, even if the subsidiary fell into bankruptcy.
The records do not indicate whether FirstEnergy or Murray Energy were paying Lewandowski to represent them. Lewandowski, who’s now a consultant, has not registered to work for the companies as a lobbyist.
Lewandowski’s involvement, and the fact that he wasn’t registered as a lobbyist, were among the factors that alarmed some senior officials. They also worried that the administration would be taking controversial, potentially inappropriate steps on behalf of a company that was aligned with a consultant close to Trump.
“This was entirely a Lewandowski production,” one senior White House official said.
When contacted by POLITICO, Lewandowski denied that he is employed by FirstEnergy, saying the assertions were “not accurate.” FirstEnergy executives and a spokeswoman did not answer multiple requests for comment. A Murray Energy spokesman also denied that Lewandowski worked for the coal company.
“I do not work for First Energy,” Lewandowski said Friday. “If you report that, it will be more fake news. Both the company and I have confirmed for the record I do not work for them. Same is true with Murray Energy. Much to your dismay, I am not compensated by them. I know you don’t want to report the truth but … the truth is the truth — even when it doesn’t fit your liberal agenda.”
He didn’t answer a series of follow-up questions about his role or whether he was previously employed by FirstEnergy or any company or group affiliated with it.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred questions to Lewandowski, including those about whether he should have registered as a lobbyist.
“The burden is on the individual to register, not the White House which is why all of your questions should be directed to Corey on this matter,” she said by email.
Sanders didn’t answer questions about why the administration engaged with Lewandowski on this issue.
Many White House officials have chafed at Trump’s relationship with Lewandowski, who worked as a lobbyist for Americans For Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, before joining Trump’s campaign team. Trump fired Lewandowski in June 2016 amid tensions between the campaign manager and then-adviser Paul Manafort.
Lewandowski later co-founded the lobbying firm Avenue Strategies with another former Trump veteran, Barry Bennett, touting their close ties to the White House. He left the firm after questions arose about his work for foreign governments, particularly Citgo in Venezuela.
Despite his ouster from Trump’s campaign, Lewandowski frequently visits the White House and has stopped by the Oval Office unannounced. He is a divisive figure, particularly disliked by some aides, but he remains close to Trump.
“You’ll see Corey in pretty often,” one administration official said. “Seeing him here isn’t like a shock or anything.”
Lobbying laws require people or firms to disclose when they are advocating for clients with the federal government. At the very least, Lewandowski’s support for Murray and FirstEnergy’s position would appear to fly in the face of Trump’s “drain the swamp” pledge to limit the power of lobbyists.
In Murray’s letter, first published by the Associated Press on Tuesday, the coal CEO said he and Jones had pushed their case to Trump in an early July visit to the Oval Office. When they met him again on an Aug. 3 trip to Huntington, W.Va., Trump told an aide in the presence of both CEOs to “tell Cohn to do whatever these two want him to do.” That was an apparent reference to Gary Cohn, director of the White House’s National Economic Council.
Murray’s letter added that during another conversation in July with Trump in Youngstown, Ohio, about a federal power emergency declaration to keep the plants open, the president turned to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and told him three times, “I want this done.”
Despite Trump’s orders, the Energy Department and officials in the White House rejected the move, because the emergency powers are designed to be used to ensure the power grid is not compromised rather than to prop up ailing businesses. The officials said the Ohio power plants that FirstEnergy and Murray wanted to keep open were not necessary to maintain the power network, which was amply supplied by other plants.
Trump ultimately agreed.
But the closure of those plants would have a dramatic effect on Murray’s coal mining operations. The CEO, who was one of the most vocal critics of former President Barack Obama’s coal regulations, said shutting those plants would push Murray Energy into immediate bankruptcy and force it to eliminate 6,500 jobs. That would mean the “destruction and devastation of the very population that voted President Donald J. Trump into the Oval Office,” Murray wrote to Perry in an Aug. 18 letter following a meeting with the Energy secretary’s chief of staff.
Trump has frequently hammered Obama for promoting climate and energy policies that hurt the coal industry, which has also seen market share decline amid competition from inexpensive natural gas and tax-subsidized wind and solar power. As president, Trump has ordered his agencies to roll back those policies and has vowed that the U.S. will withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, much to the cheers of miners and coal executives.
One company with a stake in Trump’s decisions is FirstEnergy subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, which runs “merchant” coal power plants that compete with gas and wind in the wholesale market to sell power to utilities. The company hoped Trump would invoke a part of the Federal Power Act to order that those plants be kept in operation, despite FirstEnergy Solutions’ likely bankruptcy.
Jones’ allies in the fight included Murray, whose coal mines supply several of FirstEnergy’s plants. After the August meetings with Trump in Huntington and Youngstown, Murray met on Aug. 17 with Energy Department chief of staff Brian McCormack to make his case again.
But the department, with Trump’s blessing, said Monday that it would not keep the plants open by government order.
“We look at the facts of each issue and consider the authorities we have to address them but with respect to this particular case at this particular time, the White House and the Department of Energy are in agreement that the evidence does not warrant the use of this emergency authority,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in a statement this week.
Aubree Eliza Weaver and Matt Daily contributed to this report.
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