Hot Take

Paris Climate Deal's Demise Means Steve Bannon Wins—and the Planet Loses

President Donald Trump delivered on his promise to scrap the Paris climate deal while chief strategist Steve Bannon looked on approvingly from the shade.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, President Donald Trump announced from the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, capping an Apprentice-like internal struggle between the nationalist and the globalist factions of White House aides.

Trump cited the “draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement poses on our country” and his “solemn duty to protect America and its citizens” as his reasoning for triggering the U.S. exit from the deal.

The U.S. will “begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States,” Trump added. “We’re getting out, but we’re starting to negotiate to see if we can get a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine.”

As Trump prepared to take the podium, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, the man credited with keeping Trump on a path to Paris withdrawal, stood in the shade with a coterie of senior staff, surveying the scene. For Bannon, the United States’ exit from the deal wasn’t just a policy victory, it was personal vindication.

White House officials previewed the decision ahead of Trump’s speech, and noted that the process for fully withdrawing from the accord could be time-consuming, but that the U.S. will decline to adhere to terms of the deal negotiated by President Obama in the meantime.

“The president is going to follow the [withdrawal] procedures as required under the Paris agreement,” White House energy policy adviser Michael Catanzaro told Republican Capitol Hill staffers on Wednesday afternoon. “We will initiate the process, which, all told, takes four years in total. But we’re going to make very clear to the world that we’re not going to be abiding by what the previous administration agreed to.”

That four-year timeline means that the U.S. will be officially eligible to exit the Paris accord on November 4, 2020—a day after the next presidential election.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal—which the U.S. signed onto during the Obama presidency as an international measure to combat climate change, but which the Senate never officially ratified as a treaty—is set to have broad policy and environmental consequences on the global stage.

On a separate conference call on Wednesday, White House deputy communications director Raj Shah encouraged conservative pundits and representatives from free market think tanks to incorporate White House talking points into statements, op-eds, and tweets supporting the president’s decision.

“I can’t explicitly state what the president is going to announce in an hour and a half, but I can say that I doubt folks on this call will be disappointed,” Shah said. “I think he’s going to make an announcement you’re all going to be supportive and appreciative of.”

Shah’s assurances to those present on the call—including representatives from the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, all conservative or climate-skeptical think tanks—indicated the degree to which Trump’s decision appealed to more ideological segments of the right-wing political world.

In the White House, that meant a victory for Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and his nationalist allies. The president’s nixing of American participation in the Paris accord is the clearest sign yet that Bannon and his cohort are prevailing in an internal power struggle for the president’s ear.

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Ever since April—when West Wing feuding and infighting appeared to have temporarily back-benched Bannon—the nationalist crew on Trump’s team have found ways behind-the-scenes to carefully reassert their policy and rhetorical influence over the president, and to gain back ground after many were speculating that Bannon was on his way out.

For months, Bannon, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, and others have been waging a cold war of ideas against a pro-Paris-deal faction within Trump’s inner circle, which includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump.

Pruitt and Bannon in particular have helped corral conservative activists and leaders who have been more than happy to privately reinforce Trump’s instinct and talking point that the U.S., coal miners, and the American worker are getting cheated by the Paris deal.

It’s an uncompromising view of the Paris climate deal—which has among its other holdouts only Syria and Nicaragua—that Bannon has been advocating since before the Trump era began.

"Steve wants the Paris deal dead, gone, and buried, and the president is on his side on this one," an administration official close to Bannon told The Daily Beast. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.

It’s a high-profile policy victory for Bannon-world, and a defeat for those who Bannon and his camp derisively call the “globalists” and the centrist Democrats trying to steer Trump’s administration to a more moderate plateau. These centrist-leaning advisers include Ivanka, senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and economic adviser Gary Cohn, who were supposed to act as a stabilizing, moderating force within Trump’s immediate orbit, on issues ranging from healthcare to global warming to social issues.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, called the internal battle between the White House’s globalist and nationalist factions “a straightforward fight between the establishment and the conservative movement.”

“But a more dramatic way of putting it,” he added, “would be this is the latest example of the deplorables versus the swamp, and there are a number of representatives of the swamp in the administration.”

Ebell singled out White House energy policy adviser George David Banks in particular, saying he had “ginned up” opposition to Paris withdrawal among groups of business executives and foreign leaders who had reached out to the president to express their support for continued U.S. involvement in the accord.

But so far all attempts at supposed moderation have amounted to hype. Additionally, Kushner is now under federal scrutiny as a player in the expanding Trump-Russia fallout and controversy, and the all the stories and relentless leaking about how Bannon’s days are numbered have all but evaporated in recent weeks.

“[Bannon and his allies are] back in full force,” a senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast this week. “But he never really went away. He strongly believes and says that Trump is a nationalist…at heart and will be with [him] when cards are on the table.”

Other administration officials, however, are not happy that the narrative of internal White House squabbling has colored news of Trump’s Paris Accord withdrawal. Pruitt wants to present a united front. In his preferred narrative, withdrawing from Paris isn’t good for one White House faction or another, it’s good for America.

Privately, some officials are conceding that divisions do exist. But they say that’s expected, even good, and not without recent precedent.

“The divide within the Trump Administration over the Paris accord is normal and healthy,” another senior administration official insisted in an email, pointing to similar divisions in the George W. Bush administration.

Internally, officials are comparing infighting over Paris to similar Bush administration squabbling over the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the last major international environmental agreement, to which the U.S. was not a party. Kyoto pit an administration faction led by then-vice president Dick Cheney, who opposed U.S. accession to Kyoto, against EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As Cheney prevailed, so too has Bannon. Trump’s retreat from the Paris accord is a fulfillment of a major campaign-trail promise to “cancel” U.S. involvement—and critics of the deal largely have Bannon to thank for it.

"He kept the president from going wobbly," one White House official added.

Almost immediately after Trump wrapped his remarks, protesters began to gather in front of the White House to rail against the president's latest policy move. Speakers denounced Trump's decision as not only a thumb in the eye of international action on climate change, but as a threat to national security, the economy, and generations to come.

Protesters and the rally leaders alike promised more mass protests to come, in the district and elsewhere.