During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump was fond of telling anecdotes about anonymous “friends” of his to help illustrate his policy positions. There were his farmer friends, for example, struggling under the burden of regulations. And his manufacturer friends, who didn’t like paying corporate taxes.
At the time, Trump’s stated desire to help these friends seemed to serve as a metaphor for his desire to help America at large. But on Friday, Trump got more specific, telling a group of CEOs at the White House how ― now that he’s president ― he is, in fact, using his authority to help his friends.
“We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank, because frankly, I have so many people, friends of mine, that have nice businesses and they can’t borrow money,” Trump said. “They just can’t get any money, because the banks just won’t let them borrow, because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank.”
The landmark consumer protection bill known as the Dodd-Frank Act was passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis. It requires the nation’s biggest banks to submit to greater scrutiny, and to keep enough capital on hand to make sure taxpayers never again have to cover the institutions’ losses. Banks have complained for years that the new capital requirements and stress tests make it impossible for them to lend as much money as they’d like to.
Trump was speaking at a meeting of the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of 18 business leaders who have agreed to advise the president on economic issues. The group is chaired by Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, and includes chief executives from many of the nation’s largest companies, among them Walmart, Boeing, IBM and PepsiCo.
After brief remarks from Schwarzman, Trump told an extraordinary story about how he’d tried to get spots for his friends on the prestigious forum, but Schwarzman told the president that his friends were, essentially, too sleazy to appoint to the group.
“So many people who are friends of mine, in big business, they wanted to be on the committee. And I’d call Steve and say, ‘Steve, can we get so-and-so [on the committee]?’” Trump said.
“’Nope, we’ve got enough,’” the president said Schwarzman would tell him.
“Every once in a while, I’d call and say, ‘How about this one?’” Trump went on. “[And Schwarzman would say,] ‘No, Donald, he’s a corporate raider. These people don’t want to be sitting [on the president’s committee] with corporate raiders.’”
The group laughed nervously.
“Five raiders that wanted to come on here,” Trump boasted, before pointing to Schwarzman. “But he’s been very, very selective.”
With that, the group began introducing themselves around the table.
The anecdote was fascinating in that it offered a window on two different aspects of Trump’s presidency. The first is the former real estate developer’s willingness, as president of the United States, to do favors for his friends, and his apparent lack of qualms about appointing his “corporate raider” buddies to a presidential commission.
The other interesting element of Trump’s story was that Schwarzman evidently overruled him by arguing that Trump’s commission would lose prestige if the president named people to it who’d made their fortunes in controversial ways.
Schwarzman was right, but Trump is known to have very little patience for people who tell him “no.” However, it seems that when Schwarzman framed it as a question of prestige, Trump acquiesced.
Mind you, Schwarzman didn’t say that the advice Trump would receive from the CEOs would be any less valuable if there were a junk bond king sitting on the panel. Or even that the press might ask questions about why someone with a questionable business background, and a close friendship with Trump, was sitting next to the CEO of Walmart. No, it was all about how such a move would look to the kind of people Trump hoped to have on his panel.
As Trump continues to seek out qualified people for his administration, his friends are likely to stay on the front burner. Chances are, it will be up to his staff, and informal advisers like Schwarzman, to draw the line for the president.
Earlier this week, Miami real estate tycoon Jorge Perez recounted how Trump recently sent him an email with plans for the administration’s notorious border wall with Mexico. Perez has worked with Trump to build Trump-branded towers in Florida for years. Now the president was asking Perez if he’d like to be part of the official effort to build the wall.
Perez declined the offer, telling Bloomberg News, “The wall is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever seen or heard in my life.”