Days before his January 2017 inauguration, President Trump announced that New York City real estate developers Richard LeFrak and Steve Roth would head a new “infrastructure council.” The body would advise the president on how to rebuild America’s moribund roads, bridges, broadband networks, veterans hospitals and more. It was among Trump’s major domestic policy initiatives, a pledge to invest in the roots of the homeland.
But by October 2017, the White House took the official position that the infrastructure council never actually existed. The claim came in response to a federal lawsuit brought by nonprofit group Food & Water Watch in July 2017.
In the lawsuit, which remains ongoing, Food & Water Watch argues that the LeFrak and Roth-led council operated but did not comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and its disclosure rules, which require meeting minutes to be recorded.
“They [had] what we now know were extensive meetings with the White House, none of it was revealed to the public,” said Corey Ciorciari, policy director for good government group Democracy Forward, whose lawyers filed the suit on behalf Food & Water Watch.
This summer, a federal judge granted the plaintiffs discovery to determine if the infrastructure council — now disbanded — was indeed acting as a policymaker from behind the curtains.
In its response to the order, the White House acknowledged 13 instances in which members of the infrastructure council and the White House either met in person, exchanged emails or spoke by phone. But the government added a massive caveat, arguing that those talks were about “the purpose and function of the Infrastructure Council itself.” In other words, those 13 communications were about how to form a council and suss out what it would do, not actions of an established body.
“No draft, proposal or issuance of any group recommendation, advice or report regarding infrastructure policy as a result of these ‘preliminary discussions’ has been identified,” the White House attorneys wrote.
The 13 meetings listed in the government discovery response come with few details, but do show multiple communications between the likes of Roth, who is the head of Vornado Realty Trust; Reed Cordish, the former senior White House adviser (who has been a business partner of Jared Kushner); Lefrak; and Joshua Harris, CEO of private equity giant Apollo Global Management.
While the government did admit that policy had been discussed among some of these individuals at some point, it maintained that it was only in the context of what issues the council would handle.
What precisely was discussed and by whom could shed light on whether the meetings violated FACA, which is designed to make information about such policy discussions available to the public.
Representatives for LeFrak declined to comment and the White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Democracy Forward have asked the court to grant additional discovery and have criticized the “dearth of detail” in the White Houses’ initial responses, which they say “fail[ed] to demonstrate that a reasonable inquiry was taken.”
In its responses, White House lawyers have also cited some previous rulings to give the impression that the council could be considered more of a “task force” of private advisors who did not necessarily give advice as a group (the president is entitled to receive confidential advice from such advisers as he pleases, they say). Democracy Forward attorney Karianne Jones called that legal argument “a stretch.”
“What we saw from the [discovery] is that people that Trump has publicly stated will be on his infrastructure council are meeting multiple times a month with top White House officials who are tasked with developing infrastructure policy, talking about infrastructure policy. If that’s not an advisory committee I don’t know what is,” Jones said.
Both sides await a judge’s decision on additional discovery.
In August of last year, just a few weeks after the Food & Water Watch lawsuit was filed, the White House decided to nix the infrastructure council altogether, “acknowledging,” according to the Wall Street Journal, that the president’s stance on racist and anti-Semitic protests in Charlottesville, Virginia would cause public relations issues for some of its members.
In January of 2018, the Trump White House presented a $200 billion “blueprint” for infrastructure, which it hoped would spur on $1.3 trillion in private sector investment over the next decade. But there has been no movement on this framework in Congress. The Trump campaign’s economic advisors had previously proposed a $1 trillion plan that would have entailed mostly private investment in public projects.