Billionaire investor Steve Schwarzman’s newfound status as a trusted outside adviser for President Donald Trump has created blurred lines in which the Blackstone CEO is offering guidance on policies that could boost the fortunes of his company and his personal wealth.
The starkest example was Trump’s reversal last week on labeling China a currency manipulator — a central campaign pledge that could have dealt a major blow to U.S.-China relations. While many factors likely played into Trump’s decision, including the president’s desire to encourage China to get tough on North Korea, it also followed extensive advice Schwarzman had given the president on the topic, warning Trump against such a move.
Even if Schwarzman was acting in the capacity of an economic expert, those policy changes directly help Schwarzman’s bottom line as CEO of Blackstone, the private equity giant.
And Blackstone has gone so far as to warn its investors about the stakes of Trump’s China policy. In a recent regulatory filing, Blackstone explicitly warned its investors that Trump’s tough talk on China threatened to hurt Blackstone’s portfolio.
"President Trump has raised the possibility of greater restrictions on international trade and significant increases to tariffs on goods imported into the U.S., particularly from China,” Blackstone said in the Feb. 24 disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Changes to international trade agreements or the imposition of tariffs or other trade barriers could increase costs, decrease margins, reduce the competitiveness of products and services offered by current and future portfolio companies and adversely affect the revenues and profitability of companies whose businesses rely on goods imported from outside of the U.S.”
Blackstone’s extensive holdings in China include an IT outsourcing company, shopping malls, hotels and commercial property. The Chinese government also controls an investment arm that owns shares in Blackstone.
Blackstone also warned investors about the impact on its portfolio of Trump’s tax proposals — another subject that Schwarzman has recently been discussing with the president, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
"President Trump expressed support for legislation ending treatment of carried interest as capital gain,” Blackstone said in the SEC filing. "If federal, state or local legislation to treat carried interest as ordinary income rather than as capital gain for tax purposes were to be enacted, we and possibly our unitholders would be required to pay a materially higher amount of taxes, thereby adversely affecting our ability to recruit, retain and motivate our current and future professionals.”
Trump has so far not presented his latest tax plan to Congress.
There’s nothing illegal about Schwarzman providing informal advice that benefits his own wealth, as there would be if he were an official government employee. But the arrangement creates an ethical gray area, and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel recommends making advisers employees so that they become subject to rules that guard against conflicts of interest.
Robert Weissman, president of watchdog group Public Citizen, said it’s all but impossible for someone like Schwarzman to separate his roles as a corporate expert and as a top executive and major investor in Blackstone.
"The corporate pipeline to the president’s ear guarantees the corruption of American domestic and foreign policy,” Weissman said. "In the ethics vacuum of the Trump administration, Schwarzman’s special role as perhaps Trump’s closest corporate advisor makes it almost inevitable that administration policy will bend to Blackstone’s interests."
Schwarzman is also not the only outside adviser who stands to profit handsomely of the counsel he offers the president. Trump has also tapped Carl Icahn, Rudy Giuliani and Richard LeFrak to offer advice on topics ranging from regulatory matters to cybersecurity to infrastructure — areas that overlap with their personal investments.
Icahn grabbed headlines after he advised Trump to change a federal biofuels program in a way that would benefit an oil refining company he owns. Ethics experts cried foul, arguing that Icahn was acting as a de facto government official, but the billionaire and the White House insist he is merely a private citizen.
While Trump relies on a range of executives, Schwarzman has gained an especially influential spot as of late.
A White House official and one other source familiar with the conversations said Trump spoke to Schwarzman often in the lead-up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit earlier this month, citing the friendship the Chinese leader has with the Manhattan businessman. One White House official described the conversations as Trump testing his theories and ideas about China with Schwarzman, “who kind of gave him the pros and cons of each approach,” this person said.
While China was a frequent point of contention on the campaign trail — Trump railed against the country ripping off America with trade deals and manipulating its currency — he didn’t have a deep knowledge of the country, one person close to Trump said.
And Trump has gone beyond economics topics with Schwarzman, asking him about the management structure inside the White House and foreign policy issues, one White House official said.
Schwarzman has never asked Trump to do anything “specifically for Blackstone or his company,” the White House official said, and the company doesn’t usually come up in conversations.
Blackstone spokeswoman Christine Anderson defended Schwarzman’s advising of Trump.
“Just as Mr. Schwarzman has assisted presidents from both parties in the past, he has provided his views to President Trump when asked, alongside a long, bipartisan list of business leaders from around the country,” Anderson said. “His only reason for doing so is serving the common good and helping produce positive results for the American people.”
The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s also not unprecedented for executive to provide regular advice to the president that could impact their own companies and personal wealth. Former President Barack Obama regularly relied on Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, who headed up his President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, an advisory board focused on creating jobs after the recession.
Schwarzman, who was named as the chair of Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum in December, has known Trump for years. He has a palatial estate near Trump in Palm Beach — called the Four Winds — and often retreats to the Florida island on the weekends. He likes to dine at Mar-a-Lago with Trump, as recently as the Saturday night after the Chinese president’s visit.
Trump generally initiates the calls with Schwarzman, who has visited the White House on several occasions. One adviser said Trump respects most people who are wealthy “like him.”
That’s not the limit of Blackstone’s influence. Several senior administration officials are also close to Wayne Berman, a Blackstone executive in Washington who has been rumored as a potential replacement chief of staff for Reince Priebus. While that talk has died down, Berman frequently speaks to a range of top officials, including Steven Mnuchin, the president’s treasury secretary, one White House official said.
Schwarzman, who donated $5.5 million to Republicans in the last election cycle along with his wife, has also shown a strong personal interest in China, sometimes apparently at the expense of his company duties. Schwarzman funds a scholarship program for Americans to study there modeled on the famous Rhodes Scholarship in the U.K. that in 2015 reportedly occupied more of his attention than a massive deal Blackstone was pursuing with General Electric.
For Trump, accusing China of manipulating its currency was a staple of his stump speeches on the campaign trail, and he promised to make the designation one of his first orders of business. But last week he reversed his position in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, saying the accusation could strain relations when the U.S. needs Chinese help containing North Korea.
Trump also appears to have eased off promises to slap high tariffs on goods from China and Mexico, which economists warned could violate international agreements and start a trade war. While he has not publicly reversed himself, Trump has not revived his previously frequent calls for the tariffs.