The Cloister at Sea Island resort; Sea Island, Georgia. Image via seaisland.com.
By Alex Kotch
At the annual, closed-door American Enterprise Institute (AEI) World Forum in spring 2016, government officials, wealthy CEOs, media personalities, and conservative scholars plotted ways to stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination for president.
Two years later, the 2018 forum appeared to have a much different energy, according to an event program, marked “confidential,” that was disclosed in recent congressional gift-travel reports reviewed by TYT.
The program’s list of events, speakers, and guests reflects how much has changed in the interim. The anti-immigrant, protectionist wing of Trump’s base has virtually no place at the table. Neither do those who view both Wall Street and military adventurism with skepticism. Instead, the 2018 AEI World Forum reflects a syncretic reconciliation between many top architects of recent, disastrous policy decisions, and the man who campaigned against them.
Numerous Trump cabinet officials, Trump-supporting GOP lawmakers, and one host from pro-Trump Fox News had speaking slots at the secretive, three-day conference, which AEI, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative, free-market think tank, hosted at a luxury resort from March 8 to March 11. The forum took place on the privately owned Sea Island just off the coast of Georgia, where corporate executives from the finance, weapons, fossil fuel, tech, and health insurance industries were treated to a series of speeches, panels, receptions, cocktail gatherings, and meals at venues such as “The Colonial Lounge,” “The Cloister,” and “The Beach Club.”
Numerous figures who brought America the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crash either spoke at or attended the conference, which was closed to the press. The schedule and secluded setting afforded business executives and select members of the media who received invitations ample opportunity to hobnob with the think tank fellows and powerful government officials who took part in the weekend conference.
Cabinet secretaries in attendance included Labor Sec. Alexander Acosta, HUD Sec. Ben Carson, Education Sec. Betsy DeVos, Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Sec. of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
Other high-ranking politicians including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) also attended.
Many members of Congress included the forum program in their travel disclosures. AEI treated Hensarling to over $2,000 worth of travel, lodging, and meal expenses over four days. The group covered nearly $1,300 in travel and dining expenses for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and his wife Sandy, who spent three days at the conference. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) was reimbursed for over $700 in travel, lodging, and meal expenses for the days that he attended the forum.
A series of panel discussions at the forum brought together current and former government officials, think tank scholars sympathetic to corporate interests, and representatives of those corporate interests around various issues that conservatives care about.
War Boosters Weigh In
The perspective that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric espoused, during which he railed against the Iraq War and vowed to curb American combat overseas, was virtually absent at this year’s World Forum. Instead, the lineup read like a virtual reunion of the top architects, cheerleaders, and defenders of the Iraq War, joined by those urging military action now and by weapons-industry executives who stand to profit from it.
Starring in a panel called “The New Empire Builders: China, Iran, and Russia” were Dan Blumenthal, AEI’s director of Asian studies and a former Department of Defense country director for China and Taiwan under George W. Bush; Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), who serves on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees; Gary Schmitt, director of a national security center at AEI and former executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank with supporters including former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and current National Security Adviser John Bolton that advocated for war in Iraq; and moderator Niall Ferguson, a Hoover Institution scholar and expert on Henry Kissinger, who also attended the forum. Bolton recently left his post as senior fellow at AEI to join the Trump administration. In late February, he wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal entitled, “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”
“Now is the era of the rise of the revisionist powers—China, Iran, and Russia,” reads a description of the panel. “Once great empires, these nations are led by imperial nostalgics bent not simply on accumulating power and wealth for themselves but also in changing the balance of power across the globe.”
AEI has relentlessly advocated military intervention and often influenced White House decisions. The think tank played “a key role in making the case for the Iraq war,” according to the libertarian Cato Institute. In February 2003, less than one month before invading Iraq, George W. Bush gave a major speech at AEI on the future of Iraq. Today, AEI is singing the same tune regarding American military interventionism.
Attending the forum were key architects of the Iraq War:
- Cheney, who many regard as the person most responsible for the war in Iraq
- Paul Wolfowitz, George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005 and now an AEI visiting scholar
- Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who was a special adviser to George W. Bush and senior director of the National Security Council when the U.S. began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
Attending the forum were several weapons-manufacturing executives and others with interests in U.S. militarism who had an opportunity to chat with the panel’s fellows and the U.S. representative, all of whom appear supportive of interventionist foreign policy and, thus, increased weapons sales to U.S. allies in East Asia, Russia, and the Middle East. These parties included:
- Evan Hunt, a senior manager at Raytheon
- Stephen Mueller, a former Air Force official and current VP at Lockheed Martin
- Mark Mulqueen, a program manager at Boeing
- Aaron Martin, a program director at Northrop Grumman
A panel on “sci-fi weapons” featured the Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon officials.
The U.S. routinely sells billions of dollars worth of military equipment to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These sales haven’t slowed since Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen, which faces possibly the worst famine in the world as a result.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, and Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), a House Armed Service Committee member and son of former CIA director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, both spoke on panels. So did Richard Ellings, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, another think tank staffed with several former government and military officials
One breakout session, “Crisis in the Gulf,” featured Yousef al Otaiba, ambassador to the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates; Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national and founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, including in Syria; Ryan Crocker, who helped run Iraq following the U.S. capture of Saddam Hussein; AEI’s Ken Pollack, who made a case for invading Iraq in a book published roughly six months before the start of the war; and Elliott Abrams.
The program lists Cheney as a speaker but does not include his name in the list of events. Cheney is an AEI board member and his wife, Lynn Cheney, who also attended the forum, is a longtime AEI senior fellow.
Kissinger, the war hawk who prolonged the Vietnam War while serving as secretary of state in the Nixon administration, was scheduled to speak for 90 minutes on March 10.
Yet another panel on the U.S. military featured Panetta and Thornberry; former Air Force colonel and current U.S. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee; Mackenzie Eaglen, an AEI scholar who served in the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2003; and Ray Washburne, a businessman and Trump’s pick to lead the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
The Financial Deregulators Caucus
Although Donald Trump frequently trashed Wall Street, even pledging to raise taxes on hedge fund managers, the Tea Party cohort hostile toward big business appears to have been shut out of the 2018 AEI World Forum. As with the Iraq War, those who led the way toward catastrophic policy blunders had the stage.
Several individuals responsible for crafting and passing a 2000 law, signed by Bill Clinton, that led to the Great Recession by deregulating financial markets took part in the forum. While Wall Street skeptics from the Tea Party were lacking, pro-Wall Street Democrats made the cut, attending alongside Wall Street executives.
Participating in a panel on economic growth under Trump was a key architect of the 2000 law exempting credit default swaps and other kinds of “over-the-counter” derivatives from regulation: Larry Summers, who went on to become president of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006. Summers worked in Clinton’s Treasury Department for all of Clinton’s eight years as president, eventually becoming secretary from 1999 to 2001. It was during that time that the Commodity Futures Modernization Act was written and eventually passed, just weeks before Clinton finished his second term. Despite pushback from some members of the administration, Summers was successful at getting the bill passed and signed into law.
Also on the panel was Glenn Hubbard, a former top economic adviser to George W. Bush, who got pretty heated when the director of Inside Job (a 2010 documentary about the 2008 financial crisis) asked him about his consulting clients, some of which were financial firms that he didn’t disclose when writing papers or making public statements. The film explains that in 2004, Hubbard authored a paper with the chief economist of Goldman Sachs that praised credit derivatives, claiming they led to financial stability, and concluded that such economic strategies led to “less frequent and milder” recessions. Four years later, unregulated credit derivatives brought down the U.S. economy, and Hubbard maintained his seat as chair of Columbia Business School.
In addition to Hubbard and Summers, panel member Martin Feldstein played a role in the financial crisis. Now a Harvard economics professor and member of the AEI Council of Academic Advisors, Feldstein was a board member of insurance giant AIG when it became one of the first major firms to collapse in 2008, due to its use of credit default swaps and securities lending. AIG received a $182 billion government bailout.
An important ally to Summers in 1999 and 2000 was then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), a member of the Agriculture Committee who sponsored a Senate version of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. Gramm took part in a panel called “2017: The Best Year in Human History?” Despite widening U.S. inequality in wealth and income, AEI says in its description of the session that in 2017 there was “more opportunity for all.”
Gramm attended with his wife Wendy, an AEI visiting scholar, former Enron board member, and former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 1988 to 1993. The Gramms were mired in a high-profile conflict-of-interest scandal when internal emails revealed details about his passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act—which included a loophole favorable to Enron—and the involvement of his wife while she sat on the board and owned stock in the company. Wendy Gramm was formerly a distinguished scholar at the heavily Koch-funded Mercatus Center and now chairs the Texas Public Policy Center, a think tank partially financed by libertarian billionaire Charles Koch.
A panel evaluating Trump economic policy included Hubbard; Justin Muzinich, a counselor to Treasury Sec. Steve Mnuchin and a former Morgan Stanley banker whom Trump recently nominated for deputy Treasury secretary; and Gene Sperling, an economic policy adviser to Clinton from 1997 to 2001 who has advanced some pro-Wall Street positions.
Along with Muzinich, other top finance executives from institutions that played roles in bringing down the economy were in attendance, as well. Jim Donovan, a Goldman Sachs managing director whom Trump nominated for deputy treasury secretary but who dropped out of the running nine days later; and Dana Jackson, a managing director of a division of Morgan Stanley. AEI also invited financial executives including Robert Murley, vice chairman of Credit Suisse; the Citadel hedge fund founder Ken Griffin and head of government affairs Cason Carter; Point72 Asset Management CEO Stephen Cohen; and AQR Capital Management co-founder and principal Cliff Asness.
AEI has consistently argued against financial regulation and attacked consumer financial protections. In a 2009 paper, AEI senior fellow Peter Wallison claims that financial deregulation did not cause the Great Recession. That same year, AEI held a conference headlined by Phil Gramm, who laid the blame on regulators but not on the financial deregulation he enacted that allowed financial firms to engage freely in risky derivatives trading.
Big Pharma and More
Ironically, AEI held a breakout session on opioid addiction and poverty with executives from two drug companies that have profited from the opioid epidemic: Alan Seelenfreund, former chairman of McKesson, a pharmaceutical distribution company that is being sued for distributing huge amounts of opioids; and Greg Alton, executive VP of corporate and medical affairs at Gilead Sciences, which benefits from the crisis, according to Seeking Alpha.
The panel was moderated by AEI scholar Robert Doar, who recently wrote in support of President Trump’s executive order pushing work requirements on the poor in exchange for government assistance.
Other officials representing powerful corporate interests that benefit from conservative think tanks and politicians pushing their agendas included fossil fuel executives Thomas Fanning, chairman and CEO of Southern Company and Joe Craft, president and CEO of coal producer Alliance Resource Partners LP. Also in attendance were former executive chairman of Google and Alphabet Eric Schmidt; Apple CEO Tim Cook; Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; and AEI board member Wilson Taylor, chairman emeritus of health insurance giant Cigna. In 2000, Cigna endowed the Wilson H. Taylor Chair in Health Care and Retirement Policy at AEI.
Closed to Press Coverage—But Not the Press
Several individuals from mainstream and conservative media spoke at the forum. Bret Baier, chief political anchor at the partisan Fox News channel, interviewed EPA chief Pruitt and UN Ambassador Haley during a breakfast event at the forum. On his Fox show, Baier has also interviewed the embattled EPA head, who is facing at least 10 separate ethics investigations into various expenditures, travel, and a living arrangement linked to a fossil fuel lobbyist.
Other conservative media personalities in attendance included critics of Trump’s rhetoric and style who nevertheless have applauded some of his economic policies, such as tax cuts and deregulation. New York Times columnist David Brooks; Weekly Standard founder and major Iraq war booster Bill Kristol; Washington Post columnist George Will; National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg; National Review senior editor, Bloomberg View columnist, and AEI visiting scholar Ramesh Ponnuru; Wall Street Journal editorial pages editor Paul Gigot; and writer, columnist, and AEI visiting fellow Naomi Schaefer Riley all attended.
Other media figures included National Public Radio board chair Paul Haaga Jr., Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd, and liberal New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall.
Also of note were GOP megadonor attendees Joe Ricketts, Susan and Bill Oberndorf, Nancy and Philip Anschutz, Harlan Crow of Crow Holdings, and the DeVoses.
AEI is no stranger to conservative megadonors; it’s received funding from conservative billionaires including the Anschutz, Bradley, Koch, and Searle families. The institute employs dozens of scholars and residents to conduct research and publish papers on conservative policy recommendations. AEI’s board of trustees consists almost entirely of business and financial executives.
Aside from socializing with government officials at weekend getaways, AEI has additional avenues for direct influence on government. Numerous former AEI affiliates are now shaping federal policy in the White House and several agencies, according to ProPublica, including DeVos, formerly an AEI trustee, who spoke during opening night at this year’s forum. DeVos’s husband, Dick, an investor, is on the AEI board.