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Full Interview: Billionaire Carl Icahn Resigns as Trump Adviser After Reaping Millions

Web ExclusiveAugust 22, 2017
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Extended interview with Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen on Carl Icahn. On Friday, the billionaire investor left his role as regulatory adviser to Donald Trump, just before The New Yorker published an article entitled “Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington.” The article detailed Carl Icahn’s potential conflicts of interest, including his heavy lobbying for a rule change about blending ethanol into gasoline, a rule which affects the profits of Icahn’s Texas-based petroleum refining company, CVR. According to The New Yorker, in the months after Trump’s election, the stock price of CVR nearly doubled, which meant Icahn’s own wealth surged, at least on paper, by a half a billion dollars.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Friday, billionaire investor Carl Icahn left his role as regulatory adviser to Donald Trump, just before The New Yorker published an article entitled “Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington.” The article detailed Icahn’s potential conflicts of interest, including his heavy lobbying for a rule change about blending ethanol into gasoline, a rule which affects the profits of Icahn’s Texas-based petroleum refining company. Icahn became a majority investor in CVR Energy in 2012, with hopes of later selling it at a profit, according to The New Yorker. Icahn then railed against the obscure Environmental Protection Agency rule which resulted in increased expenses and lower stock prices for CVR Energy. Analysts say Icahn used his role with the Trump campaign, and later the administration, to push to change the regulation.

AMY GOODMAN: According to The New Yorker magazine, in the months after Trump’s election, the stock price of CVR nearly doubled, which meant Icahn’s own wealth surged, at least on paper, by a half a billion dollars.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Tyson Slocum, who is director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. In March, Public Citizen asked lawmakers to investigate Carl Icahn’s actions.

Tyson Slocum, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of who Carl Icahn is and what exactly he did during his reign as Trump’s adviser on regulatory reform.

TYSON SLOCUM: Yeah, so, Carl Icahn, a billionaire investor, he’s the chairman of the board of a holding company called Icahn Enterprises, which in turn controls shares of a couple dozen or so large corporations with holdings around the world. He has a long, interesting relationship with Donald Trump. They’re both New Yorkers. Carl Icahn at one point even bailed out Trump Entertainment, which was the holding company for the Taj Mahal casino and other properties. So, the two had an interesting personal and professional relationship. And during the presidential campaign, Carl Icahn was an early public supporter of Donald Trump and actually had a title in the campaign as a formal adviser to the Trump campaign on a number of different regulatory and financial issues. At one point, Donald Trump even mentioned that he would consider Carl Icahn to be treasury secretary.

In August of 2016, in the heat of the campaign, Carl Icahn wrote a letter to the Obama Environmental Protection Agency demanding that that agency change this obscure rule governing the renewable fuel standard. The renewable fuel standard was a Bush-era law that requires oil refiners to blend certain amounts of ethanol, mainly made from corn, into gasoline, so folks can put it in their cars and boats and other things. Carl Icahn saw himself disadvantaged by the way the rule was written. Small, independent refiners, such as CVR Energy—and I mean small in comparison to the huge, vertically integrated oil companies, like Exxon and Chevron and BP—Carl Icahn’s company didn’t have ethanol blending facilities. And so he was forced to go out into the open market and buy credits. And those credits, the price of that was largely determined by a trading market, in what’s known as renewable identification numbers. And Carl Icahn was losing those bets. He was forced to buy those credits at a high price. So he wanted to change what’s known as the point of obligation. He wanted to change the point at which he would have to buy those credits, so that he wouldn’t have to buy them anymore, basically. It’s a little complicated, but, basically, he was just trying to relieve his company of the obligation of having to buy these credits.


TYSON SLOCUM: And so, he—yes?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tyson, once President Trump gets in the White House, this role that he gives to Icahn of an adviser, but not really an employee of the government, the role that he had then?

TYSON SLOCUM: Absolutely, Juan. This was very significant. So, Trump wins the election, and on December 21st, during the transition, President-elect Trump formally names Carl Icahn as a special adviser on regulatory policy for the president of the United States. And Carl Icahn took that job title and ran with it. Even though, as you said, Juan, that he was not a formal government employee, he had this official title. He was using this official title in filings that his companies were making to the Securities and Exchange Commission. And in January and February, Carl Icahn was using this new title given to him by President Trump to initiate negotiations with the renewable fuel industry, the companies that produce ethanol, to try and force them to agree to Icahn’s terms to change the standard.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyson, we just have 30 seconds.

TYSON SLOCUM: And one tactic—yes?

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could explain, then, what happened and his ouster, or, rather, his leaving?

TYSON SLOCUM: Right. So, basically, what happened is, it appeared as though Icahn had secured the support of the renewable fuel industry. In February, he got the head of the Renewable Fuel Association to agree in principle to a compromise that would change that point of obligation, so Icahn’s refining company wouldn’t have to buy those credits anymore. The problem is that big oil companies, like BP and Exxon, were against Icahn’s change. And they started pushing back really hard.

AMY GOODMAN: The New Yorker piece headline was “Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington: Was President Trump’s richest adviser focussed on helping the country—or his own bottom line?” You want him investigated, whether or not he is Trump’s adviser. Talk about the moment he left, how much money you believe he made and what he should be investigated for.

TYSON SLOCUM: Right. So, it’s unclear right now how much money Icahn made, because while his stock price did go up in early August, there were some investors that were trying to short CVR Energy stock. I do think that Carl Icahn is still ahead of the game from before the election, so I do think that he has made money. In addition, in the first quarter of 2017, CVR Energy, Carl Icahn’s company, reported that they had made about $180 million in gains by shorting the RIN market, the renewable identification number market. The RINs are the credits that refiners like Icahn’s company need to buy in order to comply with the renewable fuel standard. The second quarter was not as kind to Carl Icahn, as other investors came in, smelled blood in the water and started attacking Icahn’s short positions.

I think that Icahn got very confident—overconfident—that with his new title of special adviser to President Trump, that he could unilaterally start changing and affecting regulatory policy as it affected his investments. And what he found out, much to his surprise apparently, is that Washington doesn’t always work the way that Wall Street does, that there are other powerful interests. And in this case, Carl Icahn was really pitted against even more powerful interests, which were large, vertically integrated oil companies that benefit from the status quo of the way that the renewable fuel standard is designed.

So, Carl Icahn—we want to see him still investigated, because there’s no question that there are some significant legal and ethical issues with the way that Donald Trump installed Carl Icahn as a special adviser on regulatory policy. It is outrageous that a billionaire investor who has financial interests in multiple companies that are directly impacted by the types of regulations that Carl Icahn was advocating to be repealed or modified, that that is a inherent conflict of interest. We have laws prohibiting that kind of activity if you’re a government employee. But what Trump did was bend the rules by saying, “Oh, Carl Icahn is not a government employee. He’s just a unpaid adviser.” But we believe that he essentially was acting as a government employee. And in media interviews, folks from the renewable fuel industry that Carl Icahn was negotiating with to change this renewable fuel regulation, they were under the clear impression that they were negotiating with an agent of the president of the United States, because Carl Icahn was, in fact, a formal agent of the president of the United States. And so, the Department of Justice absolutely needs to investigate that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in essence—in essence, then, Tyson, Icahn was, on the one hand, lobbying for changes that would benefit his company, while also representing the government in the negotiations with these companies. Is that your claim?

TYSON SLOCUM: You are absolutely correct. And that raises the second issue, and that was the basis of Public Citizen’s March complaint that you referenced, where Public Citizen looked through the records. There’s this federal law called the Lobbying Disclosure Act. And if you’re lobbying the White House, if you’re lobbying Congress or the executive branch, you need to register as a lobbyist. You need to report how much money you’re spending, what lobbyists you’re hiring and what issues you’re lobbying on. It’s a very important law. Carl Icahn wasn’t registered. His company, Icahn Enterprises, wasn’t. CVR Energy, his refining company, wasn’t registered to lobby. So we filed a complaint with Congress saying, “Hey, Congress, we’ve got a company here that very clearly is engaging in lobbying at the highest levels, and yet they’re not registering as a lobbyist. And that’s a violation of the law.” And we still need Congress and the Department of Justice to look into that.

So, even though Icahn has departed, the legacy of this ethical madness is still there. We still don’t know all of the issues that Carl Icahn was involved with. You have to remember that he doesn’t just own a refining company. He also owns the only current company that is exporting natural gas out of the lower 48 United States. And Donald Trump has done a number of initiatives to try and expedite liquefied natural gas exports out of the United States. That directly benefits Carl Icahn’s company. On August 21st, the Department of Justice prematurely settled a investigation into another one of Carl Icahn’s companies called American Railcar, which manufactures rail cars, that they found that these cars were leaking ethanol in their transportation systems. And that was quietly—that case was quietly settled at just about the time that Carl Icahn departed. The question is: Did Icahn’s company get special favorable treatment? There are so many things, because Carl Icahn controlled so many different kinds of companies. AIG, for example—there are so many moves by the Department of Treasury and other elements of the Trump administration to loosen regulations that would affect AIG.

The fact is, is that the lack of transparency in the way that the Trump administration operates, and specifically in the way that he installed Carl Icahn and allowed him to run wild as a special adviser on regulatory policy—we need a formal investigation into all of Carl Icahn’s activities, to determine how much of Trump’s deregulatory agenda was done at the behest of a self-interested billionaire.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyson, what was it about The New Yorker piece that you believe led Carl Icahn to leave? I mean, you called for his investigation in March, but it wasn’t until the day that The New Yorker piece was going online—I think it was like 10 minutes before—that Carl Icahn resigned.

TYSON SLOCUM: I’m not sure. I mean, The New Yorker piece did a fantastic job in summarizing some previous journalism work. There was Chris Prentice at Reuters. There were a number of Bloomberg reporters and other bloggers and reporters that have been digging into this. Our Public Citizen’s March ethics complaint against Icahn provided a lot of information, as well. I think that The New Yorker just expanded on a lot of that and also really tried to make a case that there were some specific ethical and legal violations on the part of Icahn.

And The New Yorker is a little more high-profile than some of these other journalism publications, and so I think that might have finally gotten the attention of some lawyers in the Trump administration that might have finally said, “You know, this is just getting messier and messier, and it’s only going to get worse,” because it is absolutely true that any major deregulatory move that Trump takes from here on out has to be looked through the lens of “What was Carl Icahn’s role?” because you’ve got the situation—unprecedented—where a billionaire investor with financial interests across the spectrum of the U.S. economy had a special role advising the president of the United States to deregulate regulations and other things that affected his companies. And so, this really calls into question whether or not this deregulation is done out of ideology or for the financial benefit of Carl Icahn.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to Carl Icahn speaking on Bloomberg in August 2016.

CARL ICAHN: What I am doing at this moment in time is really moving against some of the regulations that the EPA has. They’re a bit arcane. They’ve been wiped under the rug. But I think they’re completely and totally illegal. We have—they’re going against refineries, and you’re going to see in this country a lot of smaller refineries go bankrupt as a result of these regulations, where these refineries are simply—and to make it simple on this TV show, because it’s a little more arcane—you know, are penalized for something that they can’t do. They’re asked—they’re saying that they’re responsible for blending with ethanol. That’s fine, except nobody will buy the gasoline that we blend with ethanol. I own refineries; obviously, I have an agenda here. But, you know, that doesn’t matter. Nobody is really standing up to what the EPA is doing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Carl Icahn speaking on Bloomberg in August 2016. Tyson Slocum, you made the point I think is fascinating. He’s one of the country’s wealthiest men, but really, in the energy business, he’s a small player, up against the Chevrons and the Exxon companies, and therefore he didn’t actually win this particular fight that he was seeking to achieve.

TYSON SLOCUM: He didn’t. But he tried really hard. Two months after he gave that interview that you just played, the Trump administration, for about an hour, posted a fact—or the Trump campaign, I’m sorry, in September 2016 posted a fact sheet that was word-for-word what Carl Icahn wanted in terms of the change in the renewable fuel standard. And then reporters started asking, “This is kind of an obscure thing for the Trump campaign to be highlighting,” and they took it down.

But then we saw, after Trump was elected by the Electoral College, in late November and early December, Carl Icahn was tasked with vetting the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. And he zeroed in on Scott Pruitt, the then-attorney general of Oklahoma. One of Carl Icahn’s refineries is in Oklahoma. And Carl Icahn said publicly in early December, “Scott Pruitt is going to be a great administrator of the EPA, because he understands this issue of the—what I’m trying to do with the renewable fuel standard.” And, sure enough, on December 7th, Trump did name Scott Pruitt the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And again, the EPA is the federal agency with direct oversight over this renewable fuel standard.

So, Icahn did an awful lot to move this forward. He even, I believe, created or helped to create this false news that Trump was going to issue an executive order unilaterally changing the renewable fuel standard to Icahn’s liking. He did that right as he was negotiating with the Renewable Fuels Association on trying to change the standard. And I believe that was just a typical Icahn hardball tactic, where in order to bring his opponent to the table and negotiate, he says, “Listen, you either negotiate with me, Carl Icahn, or Trump is going to issue this executive order, and then you’re left with nothing.” And in reality, I don’t think there was a forthcoming executive order. I think it was a negotiating tactic by Carl Icahn.

Again, all of this needs to be subject to a formal investigation by the Department of Justice, because this is serious business, right? This isn’t just palace intrigue. This is the president of the United States installing a billionaire investor, with vested interests in the outcome of regulations, to be in charge of changing regulatory policy. That’s outrageous, and it is and it should be illegal, and we need investigation as to exactly how much damage Icahn did while he was working as a special adviser to the president.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tyson Slocum with Public Citizen. You talked about an executive order the president didn’t sign off on, but in one of his first acts as president, Trump did sign an executive order requiring that for every new federal regulation proposed, two must be revoked. Trump announced the measure surrounded by small business leaders.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If there’s a new regulation, they have to knock out two. But it goes far beyond that. We’re cutting regulations massively for small business—and for large business, but they’re different. But for small business. And that’s what this is about today. And this will be the biggest such act that our country has ever seen.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this executive order, Tyson Slocum?

TYSON SLOCUM: Oh, it’s huge. And Public Citizen took the lead in fighting this in the courts. And, in fact, our attorney, Allison Zieve, who heads up our litigation group, just argued this to the federal court last week. The significance of this inane policy, to—if you want to propose a regulation, you’ve got to repeal two existing ones—is that it can have real devastating impacts to just start arbitrarily repealing public health and safety regulations in order to do. And it takes the assumption that regulations are inherently bad.

And as we know, we owe our clean air, our clean water—it needs to be cleaner than it is now, but the fact is, is that regulations play a critical role in forcing corporations to prioritize the public interest and public health and public safety. Without those regulations, corporations would be running wild, and we’d see even higher levels of air and water pollution and more damage to our climate. And so, Public Citizen is the lead plaintiff in this case to try and rule that this executive order is illegal.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tyson Slocum, you’ve often railed against this revolving door between the energy industry and government. And in Icahn’s case, he wasn’t even officially in the door and out, but he certainly pursued the same—the same trajectory. Your concerns about the continued problems of this revolving door?

TYSON SLOCUM: Well, I mean, what we’re seeing here—you know, corporations have always had pretty good access to our federal government. But what we’re seeing under the Trump administration is just—it’s on steroids, right? I mean, we term it at Public Citizen “the corporate Cabinet,” because you’ve got an unprecedented number of former corporate titans that are in either formal Cabinet positions, as senior officials in different executive branch agencies and even in a number of White House staff, former corporate lobbyists, and particularly in the energy sector. We’re seeing it throughout the Department of Energy, the Department of Interior. And this is really troubling. We’re seeing former corporate executives or former lobbyists for those corporations now in charge of writing policy, of writing regulations. And this is very troubling, especially with the lack of transparency that the Trump administration is engaging in.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you be specific?

TYSON SLOCUM: We’re also—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you name names?

TYSON SLOCUM: Sure. Well, I mean, Mike Catanzaro, who is also mentioned in this New Yorker piece, he is a—one of the primary White House officials. He’s in the Council of Economic Advisers. But really, all policies related to energy and climate are run through Mike Catanzaro’s desk. And he, up until January of 2017, was a corporate lobbyist for a lobbying firm that had more than a dozen energy corporation clients, ranging from the oil and gas sector to the electric power sector. And in The New Yorker piece, it talks about that Carl Icahn, when he was proposing this rule change to the renewable fuel standard, had to meet with Mike Catanzaro. And that’s what we’re hearing as well, that any major policy dealing with energy or climate runs through Catanzaro, and there is very little accountability or transparency into his actions. And again, he was, up until January, a registered lobbyist for energy corporations. And so, this is just very typical that we’re seeing throughout the Trump administration, where former corporate lobbyists are now in decision-making capacities.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Tyson Slocum, going back to Carl Icahn, who’s now out of the administration, do you believe he broke the law?

TYSON SLOCUM: I do believe he broke the law. I think that we’ve got enough evidence through his personal statements. You know, Carl Icahn is a big talker, and he has acknowledged that he was negotiating directly to change a regulation that had hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of impact on his business interests. And we believe that his role as a special adviser to the president of the United States makes him accountable for that. And there should be legal consequences for using your official government title to try and make changes to policy that directly benefit your investments. Carl Icahn is definitely guilty of that, and we need to have the Department of Justice investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyson Slocum, I want to thank you for being with us, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our conversation with Tyson, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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