Pittsburgh's Sarah Scaife Foundation has Trump ties
January 15, 2017 12:00 AM
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
President-elect Donald Trump with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as he leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., in November. Gen. Mattis has been nominated for secretary of defense.
The late Richard Mellon Scaife at a preview party for an antiques exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
By Rich Lord and Julian Routh / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A presidential administration assembled in Trump Tower and at Mar-a-Lago resort is built in part with Pittsburgh money.
From Scaife to Trump: The Foundation of the Transition
The Post-Gazette identifies 25 Trump Transition Team members with ties to the Scaife Foundation and the groups it funds. Read more here
When this week’s inaugural speeches and balls are over, and Donald Trump’s administration takes office, it will have dozens of ties to a Downtown-based foundation that has been preparing for half a century for a moment like this.
More than two dozen organizations funded in 2015 by the Sarah Scaife Foundation have connections to at least 25 high-ranking members of Mr. Trump’s White House transition team, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis found.
The connections are an indicator of the right-wing foundation’s influence in Washington at a time when it controls some $700 million, after receiving $364 million from the estate of Richard Mellon Scaife after his death in 2014.
The foundation, which was central to the conservative movement in the late 1970s leading to the election of Ronald Reagan, could capitalize on a rare chance for conservatives to steer the nation as all three branches of government are poised to shift to the right.
The foundation’s ties to the administration are “certainly not coincidental,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College who has written books on presidential staffing, including “The Co-Presidency of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.”
“It means that the senior people involved in the Scaife Foundation are well-connected in conservative politics, and that they will play a very significant role in shaping policy in the Trump administration,” she said.
Not even the best-connected conservatives claim to know where this will lead.
“We’ve been very supportive of most of the groups that are playing a very important role in the Trump organization,” said H. Yale Gutnick, an attorney who was a confidant to Richard Mellon Scaife and has periodically worked for the foundation. “I have not yet formulated my own opinions on who can influence Donald Trump.”
A Trump spokeswoman declined comment on the transition team members.
Mr. Trump made a campaign out of his independence from entrenched interests, even on the conservative side.
“For candidate Trump to be talking about draining the swamp and keeping elites at a distance, and then to be doing what he’s doing now by filling the cabinet with insiders and elites, the hypocrisy is shocking to me,” said Aaron Dorfman, CEO of the left-leaning National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog of foundations. “But the influence and the insider access of wealthy conservative donors and those with connections to conservative philanthropy, that doesn’t feel any different to me now.”
Dozens of ties
The Sarah Scaife Foundation board meets privately, at One Oxford Centre, typically on the third Thursday of each November, and historically the focus has been on conservatism’s horizon.
“They drive the conversation,” said Mr. Dorfman. “They choose which think tanks, which grantees, which fellows are getting funding and which ideas get a chance to germinate and take root on the right.”
After Nov. 8, Election Day, their work suddenly became timely. In the weeks that followed, two of the foundation’s nine trustees, and dozens of its grantees, were picked to assist Mr. Trump’s takeover of Washington.
Scaife trustees Edwin Feulner of the Heritage Foundation and Republican National Committeewoman Christine Jack Toretti were named to the Trump transition team — a group that includes paid staff and volunteers whose tasks include interviewing candidates for the 4,000 federal jobs that each administration must fill.
Among the initial rollout of approximately 150 Trump team members, roughly one in every six were connected to organizations funded by the foundation in 2015. Ten Scaife-funded groups have more than one connection to the Trump transition.
Mr. Scaife was a leading benefactor of Heritage starting in its early years, and was vice chairman of its board at the time of his death. Heritage had nine people on Mr. Trump’s initial team. By last week, 16 Heritage employees were among the nearly 300 people on transition “landing teams” meeting with federal agencies.
Most prominently, Heritage co-founder Mr. Feulner has been making recommendations on Trump administration appointees. Philanthropist Rebekah Mercer, a Heritage trustee, was named to the transition team’s executive committee.
Elaine Chao, labor secretary under George W. Bush and slated to head Trump’s Department of Transportation, has been a Heritage fellow. Edwin Meese III, attorney general under Ronald Reagan, is among three Heritage people advising on management and budget, and the foundation has at least one person on Mr. Trump’s economics, national security, domestic issues and regulatory reform teams.
Every four years since 1980, Heritage has prepared policy blueprints, in hopes the next White House occupant will want conservative prescriptions. “This time it’s a much more extensive transition program than I think they ever had before,” said Matthew Spalding, who was a vice president at Heritage before leaving in 2013 for Hillsdale College, where he is dean of educational programs. “This is a classic example of someone coming in, who doesn’t have that [policy] background, and a place that does, namely Heritage, working together.”
At least one of the Scaife-funded organizations is using its connections to the transition to raise funds. The head of the Hoover Institution sent an email to potential donors in late December touting its ties to retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, the nominee for defense secretary, who has held a $419,000 a year position as a Hoover distinguished visiting fellow.
Institution director Thomas Gilligan, in a Dec. 27 memo obtained by Bloomberg, said Mr. Mattis’ appointment gives his organization the “opportunity to influence the course of American and world history in a way that no one could have foreseen.”
There is nothing nefarious about the president-elect staffing his White House with members of think tanks, added Leslie Lenkowsky, former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service in the George W. Bush administration and former director of the Scaife-funded Philanthropy Roundtable. “This is where you get people: from the talent banks, you might say,” he said. “These are repositories of expertise, much like universities are, much like liberal groups are.”
“It’s a potent threat to modern American institutions,” countered Lisa Graves, executive director of the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy. “These ideologically right-wing foundations tend to be free-market fundamentalists whose primary focus is to undo the New Deal and all of the progress that came after.”
When Sarah Mellon Scaife placed some of her family’s banking, oil and aluminum fortune into a foundation in 1959, its leaders were local, with an academic lean.
She included on its board two executives from the University of Pittsburgh and one who was then involved with the Mellon Institute, later part of Carnegie Mellon University. She also included her 27-year-old son, Richard.
After her death in 1965, as the right reeled from Republican Barry Goldwater’s loss in the 1964 presidential election, Mr. Scaife dedicated the foundation to reviving the conservative movement by funding everything from campus groups to think tanks.
The foundation’s ideological tilt became part of its bylaws, which now require that trustees have “a commitment to the principles of less government and a high degree of personal and economic liberty and corresponding responsibility, as well as a traditional understanding of vital United States interests and national security.”
In 2013, the foundation had assets worth $320.8 million and gave out $12.3 million. Its latest disclosures, which it provided to the Post-Gazette upon request in late November, indicated that it held assets valued at $708 million at the end of 2015 and gave away more than $18 million that year.
The Sarah Scaife Foundation’s influence may be “more than any other foundation that I’m aware of, by virtue of size,” said Richard Mittenthal, president and CEO of TCC Group, a New York-based consultant to philanthropies. He reviewed the foundation’s recent giving. “From [the foundation’s] grantees, there will be a lot of work that will find its way to either Trump Tower or Washington, wherever [the new president] decides to live, or Florida.”
Mr. Gutnick said he recently visited Mr. Trump’s resort at Mar-a-Lago, Fla., in his role as a board member at Newsmax Media Inc. That online outlet is run by Christopher Ruddy, who investigated the Clintons for Mr. Scaife’s Tribune-Review newspapers in the mid-1990s, and who now boasts about his one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump wasn’t there at the time, said Mr. Gutnick, adding that people there “were very optimistic about him being open to various inputs from the conservative and liberal standpoints.”
From courts to climate change
The group poised to mold the courts under Mr. Trump is unambiguously conservative.
The Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies, a group of 60,000 lawyers and law students, describes its ideology as “individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law.” The Sarah Scaife Foundation helps fund the society, and foundation chairman Michael Gleba is a member of its International and National Security Law Practice Group Executive Committee.
Mr. Trump in November met with society executive vice president Leonard Leo, and emerged saying he’ll pick a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia from a list approved by the group. If the last Republican administration is a guide, the society also will play a big part in filling the 112 vacant benches throughout the federal judiciary. That’s one in every eight federal court judgeships.
Eventually that could mean “the weakening of unions and collective bargaining,” said Danielle McLaughlin, a New York attorney and co-author of “The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back from Liberals.” “This means the continued chipping away at the right to abortion. This may put a question mark over same-sex marriage. This means more money in politics. This means more religion in public life.”
Mr. Scaife’s legacy also supports nine legal foundations, located from California to Massachusetts, that specialize in strategically suing, often to oppose union organizing, lift restrictions on corporations or stop environmental measures. Their cases will be more likely than ever to come before judges backed by the Federalist Society.
The transition group studying the Environmental Protection Agency has been headed by Myron Ebell, who leads the Cooler Heads Coalition, part of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Recipients of $400,000 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation in 2015, the institute questions whether climate change is serious, as has Mr. Trump, and opposes agreements to reduce emissions.
Several of the foundation’s grantees, by contrast, have criticized one centerpiece of Mr. Trump’s orthodoxy: his protectionist pronouncements and interference with corporate decisions to manufacture elsewhere.
Though the foundation’s heft is indisputable, the result is unpredictable.
“The problem with bringing in all of these ad hoc groups is that they have individual agendas,” said Ms. Warshaw. “What you’ll see with the Trump administration, I think, is this absolute mishmash of people moving forward agendas.”
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542. Julian Routh: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1488.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.