In a story that does not deserve to be overshadowed by Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House, it became clear today that multibillionaire corporate-raider legend Carl Icahn was no longer an adviser to his old friend Donald Trump on regulatory matters. But it’s an open question as to whether he was pushed out of the shadowy gig or chose to leave it.
During the 2016 campaign and immediately after, Trump often touted Icahn’s willingness to advise him on economic policy as a feather in his cap. It was no surprise when it was announced that he would serve as a special adviser to the president for regulatory affairs in December 2016. He has no clear job description and drew no salary. But after a while, it became apparent that he had a particular interest in the alleged regulatory burden placed on refineries like his own CVR Energy by rules involving ethanol production. So he became a magnet for concerns about conflicts of interest in the Trump administration, where he had a lot of influence despite his periodic claims he was just a private citizen who was advising the president in a non-self-interested fashion.
Today, Icahn informed the world via a released letter to the president that he was stepping down from his special adviser position. This was supposedly not, like the resignations this week by other corporate figures from advisory positions, a protest against the president’s words on Charlottesville or anything else:
“I chose to end this arrangement (with your blessing) because I did not want partisan bickering about my role to in any way cloud your administration,” Icahn wrote in a letter to Trump released on his website.
But here’s the thing: As Patrick Radden Keefe disclosed in a vast article on the Icahn-Trump relationship published today by The New Yorker after the Icahn news broke, the White House had already fired the mogul by August 14, or perhaps was denying he ever had a position:
On August 14th, I asked the White House to confirm that Icahn was still a special adviser to the President. The spokeswoman e-mailed me back: “Icahn is NOT ‘a special adviser to the president for regulatory reform.’ ” This was certainly news. In my conversations with Icahn and his lawyer, I had not developed any impression that his status had changed. Was the Administration cutting him loose?
I wrote back to the spokeswoman, asking when Icahn had been let go. She replied, “There was no ‘effective’ end date, because there was never a formal appointment or title after January 20.”
There appear to have been multiple reasons for the rift. Icahn took a position on a rule governing ethanol production that was opposed by much of the rest of the industry, which happens to wield influence in key presidential-election state Iowa. And Keefe thinks Icahn never quite adjusted to the radical change in power dynamics he suffered when Trump was elected president.
Whatever the truth, it’s quite possible that there’s trouble for Icahn down the road stemming from his vague but powerful role in the Trump administration and Trump’s desire to keep a safe distance from the fallout.