The White House’s newest staffer is John Podesta, the 64-year-old founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP), the head of President Obama’s 2008 transition team, a former chief of staff to President Clinton, and a former lobbyist and co-founder, with his brother Tony, of the Podesta Group. You know: an outsider.
Podesta is joining the administration for one year as a White House counselor specializing in energy policy. And despite the fact that he has done more than any other unelected official to shape the policies of cap-and-trade and green-energy subsidies, and to employ and place the talent that has attempted to implement those policies during the Obama presidency, the White House assures us that he will never, never have any say in whether the Keystone pipeline, slow-walked by this president for years, is approved or denied.
“John suggested that he not work on the Keystone Pipeline issue,” a White House aide e-mailed Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, “in review at the State Department, given that the review is far along in the process and John’s views on this are well known.” Podesta opposes the pipeline vociferously, because he says it will exacerbate global warming. But if his opposition to Keystone disqualifies him from working on the issue in the West Wing, wouldn’t that also be a problem for his seat on the Foreign Affairs Policy Board at the State Department, where the pipeline issue is “in review”? Or for his seat on the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, which must have discussed the pipeline at some point? And does anyone besides the gullible greens at Credo Action, the political arm of a cell-phone company that provides its customers feelings of moral superiority, really believe Podesta will be “silenced” when it comes to “what may be the single most closely watched decision of the Obama presidency”? Does anyone who has ever interacted with Podesta or his brother believe either man is capable of silence?
The recusal controversy is a joke. There isn’t any need for Podesta to “work” on the “Keystone Pipeline issue” because everyone in the White House, which he has visited some 130 times
since 2009, knows where he stands on it. His work is already done. And it was good work — if you are part of the 30 percent minority
that disapproves of laying the pipe. Fearing his wealthy environmentalist donors, President Obama has consigned Keystone to bureaucratic purgatory. This is one decision point he is unlikely to reach, allowing Podesta to spend more time on his pet cause of declassifying files of UFO sightings
Engrossed in a technical and superfluous discussion of the meaning of “recusal,” the press, as usual, has missed the real story. It is this: Podesta is the vehicle through which a radical billionaire’s energy policies are about to enter the Oval Office. I am speaking of Tom Steyer, the incredibly wealthy hedge-fund manager who retired from his firm, Farallon Capital Management, in the fall of 2012 for a second career in political activism. Long a donor to Democratic campaigns, like many liberals Steyer has become obsessed by global warming, and sees the Keystone pipeline as a metaphor for whether Americans are serious about, and are committed to stopping, the rise in global temperatures. (Temperatures that have been flat for the past 15 years.)
Steyer is also a pioneer in the dark-money universe of post-Citizens United campaign finance. He is one reason Democratic super PACs outspent Republican ones two-to-one in 2013. He has bankrolled ballot initiatives in California, helped defeat the pro-Keystone and pro-labor Democrat Stephen Lynch in the Massachusetts Democratic Senate primary, and most recently spent $8 million in the Virginia governor’s race electing Terry McAuliffe. That, according to Politico, is “more money, on a per-vote basis, than the famously prolific conservative donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson spent in the 2012 presidential election.” But it is also a pittance of Steyer’s $1.5 billion fortune.
The relationship between Tom Steyer and John Podesta is longstanding. Steyer is on the board of the Center for American Progress, and in the early months of 2012 he and Podesta co-signed a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “We Don’t Need More Foreign Oil and Gas,” arguing against Keystone and for subsidies such as the Production Tax Credit, increasing the value of the green-energy companies in which Steyer invested and on whose boards Podesta sat. Farallon also had a major stake in Kinder Morgan, whose pipeline business would be hit if Keystone were ever approved. In July of this year, months after he “retired” from his fund, and under criticism from Senator David Vitter (R., La.), Steyer directed Farallon to sell his Kinder Morgan investments and pledged that he would donate his gains to charity. Meanwhile he was putting the rest of his money to work, investing in candidates and independent expenditures directed toward defeating Keystone once and for all. But it’s not like he can do all of this alone. A September New Yorker profile mentioned Podesta, “who is now an adviser to Steyer.” Paid or unpaid, the article did not say.
In my imaginary world the Washington press corps would find it provocative and worthy of investigation that an adviser, colleague, intellectual guru, and fixer for one of the country’s most powerful men had landed a job within earshot of the president of the United States. But one has to face the reality that John Podesta has transcended the day-to-day understanding of the phrase “conflict of interest,” and so embodies the contradictions and self-dealing and ambition of the nation’s capital that the normal journalistic reflexes of curiosity and skepticism are rather sublimated. His position at the apex of the D.C. nonprofit heap insulates him from scrutiny because the knee-jerk literalism of political enthusiasts often equates “nonprofit” with a lack of profit motive or avarice. Not so.
“Podesta has no financial interest in the Keystone XL decision,” says Credo Action. Is that truly the case? I am not saying that John Podesta is directly invested in companies that will profit if Keystone is defeated. What I am saying is that the connections between VIPs and think-tank donors and corporate boards and lobbying clients are hard to disentangle. It is so easy for a reporter to lose the thread, especially when that reporter is already inclined to think that the motives of his subject are pure. Podesta’s fame and power have certainly helped line the pockets of his brother, for example. The Washington Times reports that the Podesta Group’s income grew from $10 million in 2007 to as much as $30 million in 2010, with 2013 revenue “estimated to be around $20 million.”