Trump scraps infrastructure council amid corporate backlash over Charlottesville

After a week of desertions from Donald Trump’s high-level business councils over his response to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the White House said yesterday it was scrapping a plan to form an infrastructure advisory council to help the president deliver $1trn worth of roads, bridges, ports and other schemes.

Set up by executive order only last month, the council had no official appointees yet but was to prioritise the country’s infrastructure needs, accelerate approvals, and develop new financing options.

However, amid a widening corporate backlash over Trump’s insistence on blaming "both sides" for clashes between white supremacists and anti-fascist demonstrators, in which a 32-year-old woman was killed when a car rammed a crowd on Saturday, 12 August, the White House said yesterday the council "will not move forward".

The decision came just two days after the president signed an executive order to streamline the approval process for major projects by establishing a "One Federal Decision" policy.

Part of his $1 trillion investment plan to rebuild infrastructure, this order is meant to fix what he described as a "badly broken infrastructure permitting process" which can delay projects for decades.

"Highway builders must get up to 16 different approvals involving nine different federal agencies governed by 29 different statutes," he said, calling it a "massive self-inflicted wound on our country".

Infrastructure revival had been one of Trump’s main campaign promises, one he reiterated the day after his victory last November, promising to "put millions of our people to work as we rebuild".

Trump faced opposition to his infrastructure council. Last month, a nonprofit group filed suit claiming Trump had illegally convened it without required public disclosures. The lawsuit brought by the group Food and Water Watch charged that in setting up the council Trump skirted the Federal Advisory Committee Act, reported The New York Times.

Trump is said to have lined up two friends, New York property developers Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth, to lead the infrastructure council but he must now look elsewhere for formal advice.

Two other high-level advisory councils convened by Trump ran aground this week because of Charlottesville.

His manufacturing council was hit on the morning of Monday, 14 August with the angry resignation of Ken Frazier, chairman and chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Merck, who said in a statement that America’s leaders "must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy". Within the hour Trump had hit back on Twitter, saying scornfully that now Frazier "will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

After Frazier left on the Monday the chief executives of Intel and sportswear manufacturer Under Armour also resigned from the manufacturing council. These three have since been followed by Scott Paul, head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Richard Trumka, leader of the country’s most powerful union, AFL-CIO, and Thea Lea, an AFL-CIO economist. In his statement, Richard Trumka said, "I cannot sit on a council for a President that tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism."

Another council of top-flight chief executives from Pepsi, IBM, GM and others – the Strategic and Policy Forum, convened to advise on accelerating economic growth and job creation – disbanded after members expressed discomfort over "intolerance, racism and violence", saying members’ participation had "become a distraction".

Reuters commented that US stocks suffered their "biggest drop in three months" yesterday as the "turmoil surrounding the White House sapped investor confidence that Trump’s ambitious economic agenda would become reality".

Image: US President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference, February 2017 (Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons)

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