The White House announced the appointment of 220 individuals this week assembled by President Donald Trump to serve on an advisory council to assist the White House coronavirus task force in developing a plan to restart the U.S. economy.
The list features prominent leaders from a range of major industries, from real estate to finance to sports. But scattered among them are several of Trump’s friends, supporters, and political donors.
People like Geoffrey Palmer, a colorful California real estate developer who plays professional polo and owns multimillion-dollar mansions in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Aspen, will join the council’s "Construction/Labor/Workforce" group, alongside leaders from major unions, including AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Laborers’ International Union of North America.
Palmer has also been one of Trump’s most generous political donors, hosting multiple Trump fundraisers at his luxurious Los Angeles home and giving more than $10 million to the president's various fundraising vehicles, including Trump’s presidential campaign, multiple Trump-aligned super PACs, and a legal defense fund set up to help pay legal bills for Trump allies caught up in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In total, ABC News identified at least 25 individuals appointed to the advisory council who have made substantial donations to his political campaigns or to outside groups supporting his presidency, raising concerns among prominent ethics watchdogs.
"It's not entirely clear what the parameters were for deciding who is included or not included, but there do seem to be a significant number of Trump donors on this list," Brendan Fischer, a federal reforms director at watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, told ABC News. "And you do have to question whether some of these people would have been included if they weren't major financial supporters of the president and his party."
Ethics experts say it is certainly not the first time political donors have netted advisory posts. And some council members – such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – have at times been vocal in their opposition to the president and his agenda.
The question, ethics experts said, is whose interests are best represented and how they earned a proverbial seat at the table.
"It's an example of how writing big checks to the president and a super PAC means that your voice is heard louder than many others,” Fischer said.
The question is not merely academic, as decisions made about the economic future of the country could reflect the interests of those appointed to the council. The council’s seemingly crucial healthcare group, for example, is represented mainly by pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson and insurance companies such as Aetna and Cigna rather than public health professionals.
"It's bizarre to me that there's nobody representing public health," Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Washington-based advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told ABC News. "You need to have public health professionals, you need somebody who represents the grocery workers, somebody who represents hospitality workers, and so on."
Following publication of this report, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere issued a brief statement to ABC News.
"President Trump, who has already brought together the private sector and federal government for unprecedented collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic, is beginning a dialogue with prominent and successful individuals across multiple industries with different backgrounds and skillsets for the monumental task of re-opening the American economy," Deere wrote. "President Trump’s policies built a booming economy and they will do so again."
Trump also appointed Treasure Island Hotels owner Phil Ruffin and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to the council and assigned to its “hospitality” group. Ruffin has given nearly $1 million to Trump Victory, the president's joint fundraising committee with the Republican National Committee, and another $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee. Adelson dropped a $5 million check to the president's inaugural committee in 2017 and has given $15 million to Trump-aligned super PACs.
Palmer's real estate firm G.H. Palmer Associates and Ruffin's spokesperson declined to comment when reached by ABC News. Adelson did not respond to a request for comment.
Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who retired more than 20 years ago but has given $7 million to super PACs supporting Trump, is listed in the council’s “retail” group alongside Home Depot Chief Executive Officer Craig Menear and another co-founder Ken Langone, who has given $2,700 to the Trump campaign, the maximum an individual can give to a campaign per election.
Home Depot's vice president of corporate communications and external affairs issued a brief statement in response to questions from ABC News.
"We’re happy to give input and ideas on the roadmap for reopening the economy,” the statement reads, “and we’re also doing this through Craig’s participation with other organizations such as the Business Roundtable."
Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the asset management group Blackstone, will join the council's “financial services” and “real estate” groups. Schwarzman gave nearly $1 million to Trump Victory and the Trump inaugural committee and gave another $3 million to America First Action.
World Wrestling Entertainment Vince McMahon, the husband of major Trump donor and fundraiser Linda McMahon, is also listed as a member under the “sports” group. Linda McMahon, who was previously the Trump administration’s small business administrator, is now leading pro-Trump super PAC America First Action.
Earlier this month, a memo from the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close ally of the president, declared "employees at a professional sports (league) and media production with a national audience" part of "essential workers" in Florida, allowing McMahon's pro-wrestling company to continue live television broadcasts from its Orlando training facility, while most businesses in Florida had been ordered to shut to help fight the spread of the coronavirus.
That same day, America First Action announced a $26.6 million investment in broadcast television ad buys set to run in the fall in the battleground states, including $18 million in Florida.
Other prominent Trump donors on the council include Harold Hamm of Continental Resources, Paul Singer of Elliot Management, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, and M Crowd Restaurant owner Ray Washburne.
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