Climate change drama grips the White House

A White House that has railed against leaks was fractured Wednesday by a new one: President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. 

An initial story in Axios, attributed to two sources close to the decision, was immediately contradicted by other administration sources who said Trump was leaning toward pulling out of the deal but has made no final decision.

One unnamed official told the Associated Press there may be “caveats” in Trump’s language withdrawing from the deal.

Some sources close to the White House suggested those talking to Axios were opponents of the Paris deal, like chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who were seeking to box the president in by making it more difficult to not exit the deal. 

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Others speculated the leak came from those who want to remain in the pact, such as senior advisers Jared Kushner or Gary Cohn, in an attempt to whip up opposition to leaving it.

Trump himself said a decision was coming “very soon,” but refused to reveal which way he is leaning.

“You’re going to find out very soon,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office who asked if he was leaning toward exiting the accord. “I’m hearing from a lot of people, both ways. Both ways.”

The result was another confusing day in which it often appeared the administration was fighting itself.

The breaking news caught the White House on its heels and underscored the administration’s problem with leaks, its lack of a communications strategy and the divisions between rival wings within the administration.

“It’s a problem,” said one former Trump adviser. “Whoever leaked this isn’t trying to help the president, they’re looking out for their own agenda.

“The White House would have preferred to roll this out on their own terms,” the former adviser said. “It just shows the problems you run into when there are two wings of the White House that are diametrically opposed to each other.”

Trump’s top spokesman, Sean Spicer, was unable to say whether he even knew if the president has made a decision. 

“I obviously don’t know whether he’s made it,” he said during an off-camera briefing at the White House.

Wednesday’s whiplash showed the difficulty Trump has had in wrestling with the decision. 

For months, the president and his advisers have engaged in a heated internal debate over whether to leave the 195-nation agreement, as he pledged to do during the 2016 campaign.

Trump’s longtime allies, including Bannon, Vice President Pence, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCurtis wins Chaffetz's former Utah House seat Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny FBI can’t unlock Texas shooter’s phone MORE, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, policy adviser Andrew Bremberg and legislative adviser Rick Dearborn support withdrawing from the agreement, according to those close to the negotiations. 

Those who want to see the U.S. stay in the accord or renegotiate it include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, senior adviser Jared Kushner, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, economic adviser Gary Cohn and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

The debate has in some cases split junior staff from their bosses, those close to the negotiations say.

“I’ve heard we’re leaning toward an exit but as of last night this was not a done deal,” said one person with knowledge of the situation who supports U.S. withdrawal. “It doesn’t look like we’re out of the woods yet, so we’re pounding away.”

The White House was poised to make a decision earlier this month, but punted until after last week’s meeting in Sicily with leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations. At the summit, leaders expressed frustration about Trump’s stance on the landmark agreement and urged him to remain in it. 

That came after Pope Francis used an audience with Trump to make a push for climate action, gifting him with a copy of his 2015 encyclical on climate change and the environment.

Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese-invented hoax, appeared to signal an exit was imminent when he refrained from signing a joint statement of support for the Paris deal with leaders of other G7 nations. 

But the president has changed his mind in the past on major policies, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he was still speaking to key stakeholders Wednesday even as reports of his decision leaked to the media. 

When the Axios story broke, Trump had yet to huddle with Tillerson, who had a Wednesday afternoon meeting on the books. Pruitt, an opponent of the deal, met Tuesday with Trump. 

Administration officials who support and oppose the pact were scheduled to meet again Wednesday for a final discussion on the matter, according to a source familiar with the deliberations.

The rival factions — one led by Bannon and another that included first daughter Ivanka Trump, Kushner and Cohn — appeared to be taking their fight public on Wednesday as they sought to sway Trump’s final decision. 

“Here’s what we know about the president — you can influence him with media coverage,” said the former adviser. “That’s why people leak, that’s why this stuff gets out there before the White House is ready to deal with it.”

Amid the debate within the West Wing, the private sector and the international community have ramped up the pressure on Trump. 

Tech CEOs Tim Cook of Apple and Tesla's Elon Musk both reached out to the White House on the Paris agreement this week, according to reports. Musk tweeted Wednesday that he would “have no choice” but to leave White House advisory councils if Trump pulls the plug on the deal. 

“Don't know which way Paris will go, but I've done all I can to advise directly to POTUS, through others in WH & via councils, that we remain,” he tweeted. 

Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris reportedly penned a letter with 30 other companies asking Trump to stay in the deal. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an NGO, is running a newspaper ad on Thursday highlighting support for the pact from 25 companies, including tech giants and energy firms.     

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker doubled down on that pressure Wednesday, warning Trump that exiting the agreement could take years and could prove to be a messy process. 

“Not everything in international agreements is fake news, and we have to comply with it,” Juncker said

But outside opponents have also made their voice heard.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.) and 21 of his GOP colleagues sent a letter to Trump last week urging him to honor his campaign promise to pull out of the deal. 

Devin Henry contributed.