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2017-08-22 22:08:02
Business Groups Court White House Even After C.E.O. Defections

Last Wednesday, even as top executives were abandoning President Trump’s business advisory councils after his remarks on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va., other industry leaders were busy making their interests known to a business-friendly White House.

Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group, traveled to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to meet with Mark Calabria, the chief economist to Vice President Mike Pence. The men talked tax reform, and Mr. Howard pressed for incentives including the mortgage interest deduction.

It was the kind of back and forth that goes on between business interests and the administration every day. And that relative normalcy — even on a day when a number of prominent C.E.O.s publicly abandoned Mr. Trump — served as a reminder that no matter the president’s missteps, his top legislative priorities, particularly tax reform, still draw strong support from business leaders.

Now, with some signs that the worst fallout from Mr. Trump’s response to Charlottesville has passed — and with the departure of Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s volatile strategist — some in the business community are voicing hope that the administration can tackle tax reform.

“Everyone is similarly motivated to reach some version of success, to get a tax bill to the president’s desk that he can sign,” said Rohit Kumar, a tax specialist at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “On tax, there’s a lot of business community support, there’s a lot of similar incentives.”

Efforts to overhaul the tax code are expected to begin in earnest this fall. Already, big business groups are lining up to support the White House’s efforts.

The Business Roundtable, which represents chief executives of the largest companies, has started an advertising campaign calling for a tax overhaul that is supported by the White House, the Treasury Department and Republican congressional leadership.

Such coordination between industry groups and the White House stands in contrast to last week’s unraveling of the business advisory groups, but confirms what many in the corporate world say: Behind the scenes, there is still active dialogue between business groups and the administration.

“We have had broad access to the administration and cabinet members,” said Mr. Howard, who has been in associations and lobbying groups for 30 years. “Our access, and their receptivity to our requests for meetings, has been better than I’ve ever seen.”

Four people in particular have emerged as go-to contacts for executives and lobbyists seeking to sway the debate: Gary D. Cohn, director of the National Economic Council; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell; and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

All four are familiar faces to business leaders. Mr. Cohn, Mr. Mnuchin and Ms. Powell are alumni of Goldman Sachs, the powerful investment bank, and Mr. Ross ran a private equity firm.

Expectations of a more stable partnership with business appeared to hearten investors. The major stock market indexes rose sharply on Tuesday, in part buoyed by investor hopes that with the departure of Mr. Bannon, more pragmatic voices within the administration will gain strength, possibly resulting in a tax overhaul bill. The benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index closed up nearly 1 percent, its biggest gain in a week.

“I think investors are picking up on this,” said Jim Paulsen, a stock market strategist for the Leuthold Group, an investment firm based in Minneapolis. “We now have people around the president who are more moderate and pro-business, like Gary Cohn.”

Mr. Paulsen also suggested that Mr. Trump’s measured speech on Monday about sending more troops to Afghanistan could be seen by those still willing to bet on the Trump economy that there is now “change within the administration.”

Even as corporate leaders criticized the president, industry representatives and lobbyists have continued to press various agencies in Mr. Trump’s administration. At the Environmental Protection Agency, industry groups have attained significant influence as Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A.’s administrator, has rolled back regulations.

Still, repairing relations with the White House itself will take time. While the Business Roundtable is supporting efforts for tax reform, its chairman, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, has joined the chorus of leaders criticizing Mr. Trump last week.

“I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days,” Mr. Dimon wrote on Twitter.

The schism between Mr. Trump and top chief executives is real, and could have meaningful implications.

Former White House officials and executives said that while it is useful for executives to interact with cabinet-level officials and members of the vice president’s staff, such relationships are no substitute to a working relationship with the Oval Office.

“You will see a lot of connecting points at the cabinet level, and that’s natural and good,” said Mack McLarty, President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff. “But at the end of the day, the president is going to make the final decision on policies and how legislation is approached. So there has got to be some ability for businesses, hopefully large and small, to engage with this administration, as there was such great promise going in.”

There are even questions about whether or not the executives who once made up his advisory councils will be willing to speak out in support of causes they shared with the White House, including a tax code overhaul.

“For this president, losing both councils is terrifically challenging,” said Richard Levick, founder of the Washington public relations firm Levick. “They were more than symbolic. These C.E.O.s were going to be the ambassadors for the administration to talk about tax reform, about health care reform, about infrastructure.”

And there are other issues where business interests and the wishes of the White House diverge.

Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Export-Import Bank, which supports American exports, is facing stiff opposition from business groups.

The nominee, Scott Garrett, a former congressman from New Jersey once said Ex-Im, as it is known, “embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system.”

That has rattled big companies such as Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar, which rely on Ex-Im to help finance their overseas sales.

Now, as the prospect of hearings and a confirmation vote on Mr. Garrett’s appointment draw closer, big business groups have stepped up their efforts to quash his nomination. The National Association of Manufacturers is leading a campaign to drum up opposition to Mr. Garrett.

And the Business Roundtable spoke out against Mr. Garrett on Twitter, writing “BRT cannot support Scott Garrett or any #ExIm nominee who does not demonstrate strong support for the bank and commitment to get it promptly back to work, fully executing its mission.”

It is not clear if Mr. Garrett will lead Ex-Im, or if the efforts to derail his nomination will succeed. But even if big companies are able to sway the administration on the Ex-Im leadership, and even if a tax overhaul is enacted, it may be some time before corporate chieftains want to sit alongside Mr. Trump again.

“Our clients were coming to me eight months ago and saying, ‘What if we are the victims of a nasty Trump tweet?’” Mr. Levick said. “Now they’re saying, ‘What do we do if the president wants a photo op?’ You don’t want to be seen with this president.”