White House

In shift, Trump touts issue not important to his base: the environment

Environmental groups, Democrats not impressed

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pa., on May 20. On Monday, he touted his own environmental record. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump on Monday pivoted to an issue to which he has devoted little time and tends not to register much with his political base: the environment.

The president said he gave his Cabinet heads early in his term “clear direction to focus on addressing environmental challenges so we can provide the highest quality of life to all Americans.” At the same time he said his administration brought energy-related business back to the United States after the Obama administration “waged a relentless war on American energy.” Under the Obama administration, the United States continued a long trend of making its way to being a total net energy exporter.

Trump contended the United States is ranked first among all countries on access to clean drinking water. The non-partisan group Global Citizen, which focuses on addressing poverty, ranked the U.S. seventh in water quality.

But the White House has targeted the Clean Water Act and taken moves that some groups, such as Clean Water Action, charge have amounted to a big step backward.

Jennifer Peters, the organization’s water programs director, in April wrote that one administration plan would “eliminate Clean Water Act protections for over half of our nation’s wetlands and for a significant number of streams—anywhere from 20-70 percent of stream miles nationwide depending on the final version of the rule.”

“The Dirty Water Rule is a huge gift to fossil fuel giants because it would allow them to destroy wetlands and pollute streams without permits or pollution controls,” she added.

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Trump also touted projections that carbon emissions are expected to drop over the next two years, but provided no supporting data nor citation. And he lauded his team for “revising the past administration’s misguided regulations.”

Trump blasted the “Green New Deal” pushed by many congressional Democrats. He said it would, if fully implemented, cost $100 trillion, “a number unthinkable, a number not affordable even in the best of times.”

Independent groups put its total estimate price tag much lower, as former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglass Holtz-Eakin did earlier this year for the Aspen Institute: “It is safe to say its cost will be tens of trillions of dollars.”

Much of his East Room speech looked backward; he did not announce any new initiatives. For instance, he touted what he called his administration’s progress on cleaning up brownfields and a plan to address pollution in the Everglades and several major lakes.

Behind the scenes, Trump gave his staff little time to prepare for the speech. One senior White House official said he got a policy briefing last week about his administration’s environmental policies and “got excited,” directing them to schedule the event in the coming days.

What’s more, his decision to address the issue with a standalone policy speech from the White House’s East Room is more than a little out of character.

That’s because most of his policy pushes are meant to please his conservative base. Environmental issues are not that important to Republican voters — and recent polling suggests it ranks as the country’s most-pressing issue for just a small sliver of voters.

A Pew Research Center study conducted earlier this year found that only 29 percent of polled Republicans would support increasing federal spending to protect the environment. (Seventy-three percent of Democrats said they would support that, according to Pew.)

The Gallup organization found last month that only 4 percent of those surveyed cited environmental issues when asked this: “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” 

Administration officials on Monday contended they are not attempting to take credit a decades-old decline in pollution levels. Rather, they said the president’s speech was, in part, meant to trumpet declines in air and water pollution since he took office.

Trump has not focused on environmental issues as much as others such as immigration, trade and the economy. But the recent policy briefing changed that.

Some Democratic lawmakers were not impressed by Trump’s message, pouncing on his record even before he spoke.

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“The only people cheering President @realDonaldTrump’s record on the environment are oil, gas, and coal barons and their lobbyists,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer tweeted.

Environmental groups also shared their disdain.

“Donald Trump is the most anti-environmental president in U.S. history. Period. It is beyond absurd that he is giving a speech pretending otherwise,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

There was little notice from the White House before the speech was announced late last week. But officials contended they had been discussing it privately for a few weeks.

Asked why Trump opted to make a public speech about an issue that has not been a major focus, a Trump spokesman responded in an email by, in part, criticizing the media.

“The media has largely ignored the fact that the United States under President Trump’s leadership and policies has made the air, water, and environment cleaner and he’s going to share that with the American people,” said Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary.

Meantime, the president made an announcement on another matter at the start of the environmental event.

Trump said he plans to hold another Independence Day celebration on the National Mall next year like the one he drew sharp criticisms for last week. “And maybe we can say for the foreseeable future,” he said of potential sequels beyond 2020.

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