TIME Barack Obama

What Obama’s Hugs Meant

Decoding the president's body language

A picture of President Obama hugging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appeared everywhere Monday morning after it was announced that Hagel would be stepping down. But this isn’t the first time a presidential embrace has made news – here’s a roundup of eight notable Obama hugs, and what they meant.

TIME White House

Watch Live: President Obama Awards Meryl Streep and Others the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Barack Obama is awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 19 people on Monday, including Meryl Streep, Tom Brokaw, Stevie Wonder and Stephen Sondheim. It’s the country’s highest civilian honor. Watch the ceremony above live.

TIME 2016 Election

Democrats Narrow Convention to Columbus, New York or Philadelphia

US Campaign 2012
President Barack Obama onstage at the Democratic National Convention at the Time Warner Cable Arena on September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, N.C. Charles Ommanney—Getty Images

Also considering moving it earlier in the summer

The Democratic National Committee announced Monday afternoon that it had narrowed the list of finalist cities to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Columbus, New York and Philadelphia.

The announcement comes after a round of visits by DNC technical advisors to five semifinalist cities, including Birmingham and Phoenix. Cleveland was initially a semifinalist, but was removed from contention once it was selected earlier this year to host the 2016 Republican National Convention.

“We’re thrilled to move to the next step of the selection process to determine where Democrats will come together to nominate the 45th President of the United States,” said DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a statement. “We are fortunate to have such a diverse and vibrant group of cities interested in hosting this special event and we thank Phoenix and Birmingham for showcasing their special communities.”

The Democratic National Committee is considering three dates for the convention: the weeks of July 18, July 25, and August 22, 2016. The date and location will be finalized early next year, but indicate that Democrats are considering following Republicans in moving the convention earlier in the summer, freeing up general election dollars earlier for their eventual nominee. The Republican National Convention will start either on June 27 or July 18, 2016, according to the Republican National Committee, with a final determination expected in the new year.

Central to the DNC’s thinking as it further narrows the list will be the host city’s ability to come up with the tens of millions necessary to fund a convention, particularly now that Congress has withdrawn public financing of the quadrennial Republican and Democratic gatherings. The 2012 DNC convention in Charlotte ended up deeply in debt, with Duke Energy forgiving a $10 million loan to the host committee, despite President Barack Obama’s pledge that his convention would not accept corporate donations.

TIME Immigration

Latinos, Young Voters Applaud Obama Action On Immigration, Polls Show

Immigrants Rally To Thank Obama
Nov. 21, 2014 - Washington, District of Columbia, U.S. - Hundreds of Latino activists and families gather outside of the White House the day after Obama's immigration executive order in Washington on Nov. 21, 2014. Oliver Contreras—Zuma Press

Latino voters of both parties blame Congressional Republicans for failing to pass an immigration reform bill

The vast majority of Latinos and voters under the age of 35 support President Barack Obama’s executive action last Thursday shielding between 4 and 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, according to new national polls.

The overwhelming support from these two growing demographics may have major implications for voter turnout and party affiliation in 2016.

Almost 90% of Latino voters say they “support” or “strongly support” Obama’s executive action, according to a national poll by Latino Decisions and commissioned by two pro-immigration reform groups, Presente.org and Mi Familia Vota.

Nearly three-fourths (72%) of voters under the age of 35 supported the president’s action, according to a national poll by Hart Research Associates [PDF].

While both Latinos and young voters showed particularly strong support, 67% of all voters—both men and women from states that supported both Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012—felt favorably toward the executive action, according to the Hart Research poll. More than two-thirds of all voters were in favor of allowing the undocumented parents of children or young adults to stay in the U.S., and of providing temporary work permits to eligible immigrants.

Both polls found that voters believe Obama’s executive action is lawful. Respondents strongly disagreed with strategies, suggested by some Republicans, to fight the action: 72% of voters opposed the idea of Republicans shutting down the government until the president agrees to end the executive action, according to the Hart Research poll. (62% of Tea Party Republicans were in favor of that strategy.) Four out of five Latino voters opposed the idea of Republicans passing a bill to defund a federal program issuing work permits to undocumented workers, according to the Latino Decisions poll.

Latino support for the executive action appears to be largely bipartisan, according to Latino Decisions. While 95% of Democratic Latino voters were in favor of the executive action, 76% of Republican Latinos were as well. The issue of immigration reform remains deeply personal for many Latino voters, 64% of whom have friends, family members, coworkers, or acquaintances who are undocumented.

Sixty-four percent of Latino voters blamed Congressional Republicans for failing to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill; 24% blame Obama and Democrats, according to the Latino Decisions poll.

Insofar as Latino voters were disappointed by Obama’s executive action, the reason seems to be that it didn’t go far enough. Two-thirds (66%) of Latinos said that Obama should use additional executive orders to shield from deportation those undocumented immigrations who were not covered by last Thursday’s action, which covers only those who have not committed a crime, lived here five or more years, and are either parents of a U.S. citizen or legal resident child here in the U.S. The action does not grant them citizenship, but it does allow them to get legal work permits.

The Latino Decisions poll included 405 Latinos randomly selected from a nationwide database of registered voters. Its margin of error is +/- 4.9%. The Hart Research Associates poll surveyed 800 likely 2016 voters and had a margin of error of +/-3.5%.

TIME Military

3 People Who Could Replace Chuck Hagel

All have been considered before and passed over

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced his resignation after less than two-years on the job Monday after President Barack Obama asked for him to step-aside amid repeated disagreements and missteps.

According to administration officials, three contenders are at the top of the short-list to replace Hagel: Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, and former DOD officials Michele Flournoy and Ashton Carter. All have been considered and passed over for the post before.

A senior administration official said Obama would name a replacement to Hagel “in short order,” with Hagel remaining in the post until his replacement is confirmed by the Senate. Current and former officials said Obama will look both for someone who can avoid the communications troubles that plagued Hagel, as well as who is more adept to manage newly emerging threats like the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska who broke with his party on foreign policy issues, faced tough opposition from hawkish Republicans and some Democrats during his confirmation battle over concerns that he wasn’t supportive enough of Israel, and that was with a Democrat-controlled Senate.

Hagel’s performance during his confirmation hearing was resoundingly panned. Republicans will control the Senate beginning in January when the new Congress is sworn-in, further complicating Obama’s decision. With the extension of the Iran nuclear talks, one Republican Senate aide said the next Pentagon chief’s confirmation hearings are likely to become a proxy for concerns in both parties about the Iran negotiations.

A look at the short-list:

Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed: Like Hagel, Reed was one of 23 Senators to vote against the Iraq War Resolution in 2002. A longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has been considered for the Secretary of Defense position by Obama before, but has repeatedly stated he would rather be a Senator. With the retirement of Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Reed is now in line to be the Ranking Member of the committee when the GOP-controlled Senate is sworn in next year. As a senator, he would likely face a smoother confirmation process than the others on the short-list, that is if he wants the job. A Reed spokesman said Monday morning that he’s not interested.

Michele Flournoy: The former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the number-three position at the Department of Defense, Flournoy was a top aide to former Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta before leaving the Pentagon in February 2012. Widely respected on both sides of the aisle, she is a founder of the center-left Center for a New American Security. Flournoy would be the first woman in the post, a historic element that some Obama administration insiders say would be appealing to the president. She also comes as a veteran of both Obama campaigns, and maintains close ties to the White House.

Ashton Carter: The former Deputy Secretary of Defense from October 2011 to December 2013, Carter was responsible for the day-to-day management of the department. During the Clinton administration he served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy. Carter’s supervision of the department during a period of budget cuts earned accolades from both sides of the aisle when he stepped down last year. Like Flournoy, he was on the short-list of contenders to replace Panetta in 2012.

TIME Military

Hagel Retreats from Pentagon Under Fire

His low-profile demeanor ill-suited for ISIS fight

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down, after he and President Barack Obama concluded that his low-key style—despite his military experience in Vietnam—isn’t well-suited for the expanding war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The sudden change at the top of the President’s national-security team comes after the Administration seemed slow to react to ISIS’s rise over the past year, and responded with what many inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill saw as a timid bombing campaign launched in August.

Some Hagel allies were quick to defend him, saying he was doing the job the way the White House wanted him to do it. But others said his languid style—on display during his lackluster confirmation hearing in January 2013—left him vulnerable to criticism from those who want a more aggressive military strategy.

MORE: 3 people who could replace Chuck Hagel

The decision to seek a new top Pentagon civilian came after several weeks of discussion between Obama and Hagel following the Democrats’ shellacking in the mid-term elections. Hagel, as the lone Republican in Obama’s Cabinet, “began speaking with the President about departing the Administration, given the natural post-midterms transition time,” a senior Administration official said. News of Hagel’s departure was first reported by the New York Times.

Hagel, 68, served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam, and was the first grunt to run the Defense Department. He served as a GOP senator from Nebraska from 1996 to 2008, and took over a Pentagon exhausted by 12 years of war and facing budget cuts, only to see conflict erupt in Iraq and Syria.

He quarreled with the White House’s National Security Council, especially over the best approach to deal with the three-year old Syrian civil war, which incubated ISIS. Hagel recently sent a memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice arguing for more clarity on how to deal with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. “Hagel was chosen for pliability,” former Army officer and scholar Ralph Peters says. “Yet, in the end he emerged as a man of conscience telling the President things he did not want to hear.”

Candidates to succeed Hagel include Ashton Carter, who has served as the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, and Michèle Flournoy, who would be the first woman to hold the job. Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., also could be tapped, Pentagon officials say. Hagel plans to stay on until his successor is confirmed.

It was notable when Hagel testified alongside Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Dempsey was the one who made news. While Dempsey overshadowed Hagel—particularly on the possible need to send U.S. ground troops in to fight ISIS—in part that was due to Hagel’s quiet demeanor.

Neither Hagel nor his associates had given any sign he was getting ready to leave the Pentagon after less than two years on the job.

Hagel conceded last week that the U.S. and its military is facing challenges well beyond ISIS, stretching from Iran to Russia. “If we’ve had such good policies over the years, then we probably wouldn’t be in this situation,” he told PBS’s Charlie Rose on Wednesday.

Two days later, Obama and Hagel decided it was time for the defense secretary to step down.

TIME Military

Pentagon Chief Chuck Hagel Is Stepping Down

Will stay in post until successor confirmed

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is resigning from the post after less than two years on the job, President Barack Obama announced Monday.

Obama said he was “reluctant” to see Hagel leave, though an Administration official told TIME that Obama had asked Hagel to resign. Obama said Hagel concluded it’s an “appropriate time for him to complete his service.” He will stay in his post until a successor is confirmed by the Senate.

“Over nearly two years Chuck has been an exemplary Defense Secretary,” Obama said during an appearance with Hagel at the White House. “Chuck is and has been a great friend of mine, since I was a green-behind-the-ears freshman senator,” Obama added.

Hagel called being Secretary of Defense “the greatest privilege of my life.”

MORE: Why Chuck Hagel resigned

An Obama friend dating back to their time opposing the Iraq War in the Senate, Hagel had difficulty interacting with members of Obama’s team and has been rumored to be on his way out for weeks.

In an interview with PBS last week, Hagel sidestepped questions about whether he would remain in the job. “First of all, I serve at the pleasure of the President,” Hagel said. “I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity I’ve had the last two years to work every day for the country and for the men and women who serve this country. I don’t get up in the morning and worry about my job. It’s not unusual by the way, to change teams at different times.

“I didn’t say I expect him to change,” he added under continued questioning. “What I’m saying is it wouldn’t be unusual to do that first of all historically. But second, I’ve got to stay focused on my job… and I do. And I am very fortunate that I have some of the best people in the world to work with and whatever the President decides, he’s the President, he makes those decisions.”

Asked if he still believed he had Obama’s confidence, Hagel said: “Well, I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t. But you’d have to ask him that. I mean I see him all the time.”

MORE: 3 people who could replace Chuck Hagel

Hagel, the first enlisted man to rise to become Secretary of Defense, was seen by Obama aides as having difficulty staying on message and communicating the Administration’s positions clearly. Over the summer, White House aides were forced to walk back comments he made about the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), in which he called the militant group an “imminent threat to every interest we have.”

One former Obama official was skeptical that dropping Hagel will improve the Administration’s foreign policy position. “Not sure what kind of Kool-Aid they are drinking if they think that getting rid of Hagel—and not the national security advisor who’s flailing to handle the [ISIS] problem—is going to make things better,” the former official told TIME.

Hagel faced a tough confirmation battle in 2012 and early 2013 when Democrats controlled the Senate.

“The bottom line is that he wasn’t set up for success by his team when he arrived at the Pentagon,” the former official added. “After a particularly tough confirmation process, instead of pushing the new Secretary to own the job inside the Beltway and in the public eye, his team took the opposite approach. Their goal was just not to make waves.”

His replacement will have to find support from the GOP-controlled Senate in the new Congress next year.

“Secretary Chuck Hagel honorably served the United States as a combat soldier, a U.S. Senator, and as Secretary of Defense,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will become Majority Leader when Republicans take over the Senate next year, said in a statement. “We appreciate his service to the nation.

“It’s important to remember that Secretary Hagel’s departure comes at a moment of great peril for our country,” McConnell added. “His successor will confront the daunting challenges of: modernizing our conventional military forces to meet the challenges posed by Russia and China; restructuring the force after more than a decade of counterinsurgency warfare; maintaining our dominance in the air and at sea; investing in the next generation of weapons systems to preserve our nuclear triad; and combatting terror whether from Al Qaeda, associate forces, [ISIS], or other groups seeking to exploit the ungoverned spaces created by revolt and unrest. All of these challenges come at a time when the all-volunteer force faces a shortage of resources and investment. It is imperative that the next Secretary of Defense possess a sharp grasp of strategy, a demonstrated ability to think creatively, and the willingness and ability to work with Congress. And it is critical that the President consider these qualifications and challenges as he considers such an important nomination.”

Two former Department of Defense officials—Michele Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense and Ashton Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense—were runners-up to Hagel for the post when former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stepped down in 2012, and are seen as top contenders to be Hagel’s successor, according to administration officials, along with Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, who is in line to be Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee.

“With the United States facing threats to our national security around the world, it is my hope that Senate Republicans will work with Democrats to give swift and fair consideration to President Obama’s next nominee to this critical post,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will become Minority Leader next year, said in a statement lauding Hagel’s service.

Read next: Hagel Retreats from Pentagon Under Fire

TIME Foreign Policy

Rand Paul Wants to Declare War Against ISIS

“War cannot be initiated without Congress”

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said in a new interview that Congress should formally declare war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) as a way to limit the engagement against the militant group and take war powers back from President Barack Obama.

“War cannot be initiated without Congress,” Paul told the New York Times in advocating for the first formal declaration of war since World War II. Paul is circulating a resolution to do just that.

A likely 2016 presidential candidate whose libertarian-leaning foreign policy is viewed skeptically by many conservatives and mainstream Republicans, Paul is likely to face backlash from members of his own party who don’t want to limit the President’s authority when it comes to fighting ISIS.

“Conservatives are mad at him about immigration. And they’re mad about him using executive authority on Obamacare,” Paul said. “But this is another example where he doesn’t have much respect for Congress, and some conservatives don’t quite get that.”

MORE: The reinventions of Rand Paul

Paul told TIME earlier this year that his support for fighting ISIS, which has taken control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria, “doesn’t mean you give up your principles of thinking war is the last resort.”

[NYT]

TIME Bill Cosby

Morning Must Reads: November 24

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Western N.Y. Braces for Floods

Officials warned the record amount of snow that fell on parts of the state might wreak more havoc this week, as warmer weather threatens to inundate the area. With temperatures set to hit the high 40s, flood warnings were issued for several areas

What to Do About The Cosby Show?

Should Bill Cosby’s show lose its place in TV history in the wake of sexual assault allegations against the comedian?

Ferguson Awaits a Decision

A grand jury is set to reconvene Monday, trying to decide whether to indict a white police officer in the August shooting death of an unarmed black teen

See the Winners of the 2014 American Music Awards

The American Music Awards honored the most popular acts of the year, based on polling data and chart performance. One Direction won Artist of the Year, while Taylor Swift received the Dick Clark Award for Excellence

Israel Advances Bill to Define as Jewish State

The Israeli Cabinet, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sunday approved draft legislation to call Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, a measure that critics say could further strain the state’s frayed relationship with its Palestinian population

Lisa Bonet Denies Slamming Bill Cosby on Twitter

A fake Twitter account tweeted out, “According to the karma of past actions, one’s destiny unfolds, even though everyone wants to be so lucky,” which was aimed at comedian Bill Cosby. Bonet’s manager has remarked that the actress does not use any social media

Ohio Cops Fatally Shoot 12-Year-Old

A boy who was shot by police on a Cleveland playground after officers mistook his replica airsoft gun for the real thing died on Sunday. Police said in a statement that an orange marker that typically appears on toy guns to distinguish them from real guns was missing

Voters Want ‘Fresh Start’ in 2016, Says Obama

President Barack Obama said in an interview aired on Sunday that voters will be looking for a “fresh start” as they go to the polls in 2016 to select his successor. “I think the American people, you know, they’re going to want — you know, that new car smell,” he said

D.C. Mourns ‘Mayor for Life’ Marion Barry

Washington D.C. is mourning former mayor Marion Barry, who died on Sunday at age 78. Barry served as the city’s second elected mayor from 1979 until 1991. In 1990, the FBI and Washington police busted him in a drug sting

Charge Filed Against Mom of Newborn Left in Drain

A 30-year-old Sydney mother has been charged with trying to kill her newborn son by abandoning him in a roadside drain for five days before passers-by heard his cries, police said on Monday. The baby was in serious but stable condition a day after he was found

Sting Joins Cast of His Own Show

Sting will take the leading role of the musical The Last Ship between Dec. 9 and Jan. 10 in a bid to boost failing ticket sales. The show, for which Sting wrote both music and lyrics, has been losing $75,000 a week since it premiered on Sept. 29

New Hunger Games Wins the Weekend Box Office

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 won not only the weekend box office but also the year: it had a stronger opening than any other film so far in 2014, beating out Transformers: Age of Extinction’s $100 million debut

Get TIME’s The Brief e-mail every morning in your inbox

TIME Lobbying

Governors Lean Heavily on Industry-Funded Group on Offshore Drilling

Chevron's Jack/St. Malo Oil Platform Departs From Kiewit Offshore
Birds fly as pedestrians watch tug boats transport the Chevron Corp. Jack St. Malo semi-submersible drilling and production platform to the Gulf of Mexico from Kiewit Offshore Services in Ingleside, Texas, U.S., on Nov. 15, 2013. Eddie Seal—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Energy lobbying firm worked through industry-funded advocacy group to provide research and resources

It was a brisk February morning, and the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia and North Carolina were seated around a ring of tables draped with pleated beige fabric in the ornate Nest Room of Washington, D.C.’s Willard InterContinental Hotel. Sitting across the tables was Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whom the governors had invited so they could make their case for expanding offshore energy production. It was a long-awaited meeting for the governors, and they’d armed themselves with specific “asks” — that Jewell’s department open access to oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic, for instance, and improve “regulatory certainty” for energy companies operating rigs off the coasts.

The get-together this past winter was but one small push in the type of broader political campaign that occurs every day in countless Washington conference rooms, watering holes and hotel suites. For the past three years, a group of eight, mostly Republican governors from coastal states has been lobbying the Obama administration to expand access to the nation’s offshore oil and gas deposits, working through an organization called the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition.

While the message from the governors that morning would have come as no surprise to Jewell, less clear, perhaps, was that the governors were drawing on the research and resources of an energy lobbying firm acting on behalf of an oil industry-funded advocacy group.

Indeed, the background materials handed to the governors for the meeting, right down to those specific “asks,” were provided by Natalie Joubert, vice president for policy at the Houston- and Washington D.C.-based HBW Resources. Joubert helps manage the Consumer Energy Alliance, or CEA, a broad-based industry coalition that HBW Resources has been hired to run. The appeal for regulatory certainty, for example, came with a note to the governors that Shell, a CEA member, “felt some of the rules of exploration changed” after it began drilling operations in the Arctic.

The governors’ efforts have produced more than just talking points. This summer, the coalition won a major victory when the Interior Department said it would accept applications to probe the Atlantic seabed for oil and gas with seismic tests, a significant step toward allowing drilling off the East Coast — drilling that has been off-limits for decades. While the federal government ultimately controls where offshore drilling is allowed, the Obama administration has made clear it will allow production where the public — and public officials — support development.

And so it appears as if CEA’s considerable investment of time and resources has paid off. Indeed, a review of thousands of pages of public documents, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through records requests, shows that much of the governors coalition work has been carried out by HBW Resources and CEA, a group that’s channeled millions in corporate funding to become a leading advocate at the state level for drilling.

The governors coalition is just one of many groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (in which CEA is actively involved), that allow powerful corporate interests to gain a direct line to state policy makers not available to common citizens or other stakeholders, all under the banner of a generic advocacy organization.

“It would be alarming I think for many people if they found out that some of the biggest polluters were running a governors group, but less so if it’s a nonprofit,” said Nick Surgey, director of research at the Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal advocacy group. “That one step removed stops the alarm bells going off, but it should really concern people.”

The documents suggest that CEA staff attended the February meeting with Jewell, but Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw did not respond to a question asking whether Jewell knew of CEA’s involvement, saying only that the department speaks with “a broad group of stakeholders,” and considers “all points of view.” She said Jewell told the governors that the department “is committed to working with them and their participation in the planning process is fundamental for any kind of coastal development.”

The Center requested interviews with staff of each of the governors — additional coalition members include the chief executives of Alaska, Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana — but none made anyone available, though Alaska responded to questions in writing.

There’s been little effort to explain CEA’s relationship with the coalition, which is currently chaired by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory. The coalition’s website made no mention of CEA until recently, when one page was edited — after the Center began reporting this article — to acknowledge the organization provides “information and administrative support.” In March, when the Center first asked who staffs the coalition, Ryan Tronovich, a spokesman for McCrory, said the governors provide the staff (records show Tronovich actually consulted with CEA to answer the Center’s questions). When the Center asked again after learning of CEA’s involvement, Tronovich said in an email that he “should have been more clear,” and compared CEA’s help to that given by an intern. (The Republic Report, an investigative news website, first reported a possible connection with CEA in February when it noted that a coalition letter appeared to have been written by Joubert.)

In an interview, David Holt, president of CEA and managing partner of HBW Resources, said CEA provides assistance to the coalition at the governors’ request. He said both the coalition and CEA have an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that supports renewable as well as fossil fuels. He also characterized his organization’s role as supportive of the coalition in the same way any number of stakeholders may be.

But there’s no evidence that any other group has played a substantive role in the coalition, or that environmental organizations have been invited to any of its meetings. Earlier this month, the McCrory administration organized a meeting with federal officials to discuss Atlantic drilling; no other governors were there, but staff representing the governors of South Carolina and Virginia did attend. McCrory administration staffers told journalists and environmental organizations that the meeting was closed to interest groups so as not to “allow for the potential of the appearance of influence.” In fact, CEA and other industry groups did attend the meeting. Nadia Luhr, the legislative counsel for the North Carolina Conservation Network, wrote a letter to the administration protesting the circumstances of the meeting. She had not previously been aware of CEA’s role in the coalition, but indicated she wasn’t surprised.

“It’s just another example,” she said, “of industry having a voice where no one else does.”

Rebirth of an industry

Each May, tens of thousands of people gather in Houston for the Offshore Technology Conference, the industry’s premier event, and in 2011 they were looking for a fresh start. A year earlier, the Deepwater Horizon rig had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico just weeks before the conference, killing 11 people and leading to the largest oil spill in the nation’s history. In the aftermath, Obama placed a moratorium on deep-water drilling and canceled plans to allow drilling in the waters off Virginia.

Nevertheless, the 2011 conference was bigger than ever, with exhibit booths displaying the latest in drilling technology sprawling over nearly 600,000 square feet of Houston’s Reliant Park complex, which encompasses a cavernous exhibition center, an indoor arena that seats nearly 6,000 people, and covered outdoor booths. There were policy discussions and technical events with titles like “Active Heating for Life of Field Flow Assurance.” The first day kicked off with a panel hosted by Holt and an executive with Noble Energy that featured officials from the five inaugural states of the coalition — Texas, Alaska, Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana — who decried the federal government for standing in the way of development.

It was there that the governors of those five states announced their coalition, with a stated goal of improving dialogue between the states and the federal government. The coalition’s first chairman was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who as a congressman in 2006 sponsored a bill that would have removed the federal moratoriums on drilling in the Atlantic and Eastern Gulf. In 2010, as governor, Jindal railed against Obama’s deep-water moratorium — a moratorium that had been lifted by the time the 2011 conference was held. The governor has been a reliable friend to the oil industry, which has contributed more money to his campaigns than any other sector — more than $1.4 million over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Jindal’s office did not respond to an interview request or to questions about the coalition’s formation. Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, the second chairman of the coalition, said in a written response that the founding governors, not CEA, had decided to form the coalition. When asked how CEA got involved, she wrote: “Unknown.” (Parnell recently lost a bid for re-election.)

CEA president Holt said the governors approached his group because it represents not only energy companies, but also other sectors like airlines, trucking and construction. “They knew of us and asked CEA because we represent the whole economy,” he said.

Some environmental advocates have a dimmer view of why the group was formed that May. “The Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition is a Trojan horse,” said Richard Charter, who has fought against offshore drilling for decades and is now a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, which supports marine conservation. Oil companies and other industry groups, including CEA, started a campaign a decade ago to repeal the Atlantic moratorium by lobbying officials and the public state-by-state, he said, and the coalition is the culmination of that effort. “They want to create the appearance that a bunch of coastal states are clamoring for ‘drill here, drill now.’”

Throughout its three-and-a-half-year life, the governors coalition has focused on the Interior Department’s “Five-Year Program” — the arcane, bureaucratic process the department uses to plan the nation’s offshore drilling regimen — lobbying at each incremental turn for the department to open more areas to drilling and to ease restrictions where drilling is underway. The coalition has also pushed for the federal government to share more drilling revenue with the states.

The Center requested documents related to the governors coalition from the three states that have chaired the coalition. Louisiana and Alaska provided thousands of pages, though Alaska’s response was heavily redacted. North Carolina has yet to respond to the request, which was submitted in April.

Whatever the origins of the coalition, the documents show that Holt was an early driving force. In May 2011, he and his colleagues at CEA designed a logo for the group. In July, he sent an email to Chip Kline, deputy director of Jindal’s Office of Coastal Activities,congratulating Louisiana on being named the coalition’s first chair, stressing that the governors would add a “meaningful voice” to the energy debate. When they were planning the coalition’s first meeting, alongside a Republican Governors Association gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and RSVPs weren’t coming in as hoped, Holt fired off a message saying, “REALLY need to have this OCSGC meeting to get things rolling.”

Voice of the consumer?

The Consumer Energy Alliance calls itself “The Voice of the Energy Consumer.” The group was formed in 2006, operating initially out of a small office park in Houston. Its first board of directors included executives with Shell, Hess and a wind power company, as well as geologists and representatives of “consumer” industries such as trucking. Also on the board: Jim Martin, chairman of the 60 Plus Association, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to the elderly advocacy group AARP, but which is also part of the well-financed political network led by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists with major stakes in oil and gas.

Holt, 48, who speaks with folksy Texan charm, has been the alliance’s only president. Before starting CEA, he had worked in government affairs for Hart Energy, an industry publishing company, and before that, he says, as legal counsel to the top oil and gas regulator in Texas.

The alliance says it seeks to improve understanding of the nation’s energy needs and advocates for lower energy prices through an “all-of-the-above” policy of increased domestic energy production. Over the past eight years, the group’s membership has grown to about 240 corporate entities, including groups from “energy consuming” industries like transportation and construction, as well as energy companies. CEA also claims to have some 400,000 individual members who have signed petitions or taken other actions that are described on its website. (In October, however, Wisconsin regulators rejected a petition CEA had filed in an electricity rate case there after an investigation by the Madison Capital Times revealed that some of the 2,500 people whose names had been used were unaware they appeared on the petition, and actually opposed CEA’s stance. CEA said it stood by the 2,500 signatures, but had actually requested that the petition be withdrawn before it was rejected.)

In 2011, the year the governors coalition was formed, CEA’s annual revenue ballooned to $3.8 million from just $737,000 the previous year, and it’s remained above $3 million since then. Holt says the majority of CEA’s members are from “consuming” sectors and that its funding comes from all members. He wouldn’t say who pays what, however, and tax records show that in 2011 and 2012, the most recent years available, at least 30 percent of the money came from just three entities: the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and America’s Natural Gas Alliance, each a prominent oil and gas industry group.

More than $1 million of that revenue goes as a management fee to HBW Resources, an energy-focused lobbying and consulting firm that Holt formed in 2008 along with Michael Whatley — a former chief of staff for Sen. Elizabeth Dole — and Andrew Browning, who had worked as a lobbyist and in the Department of Energy. With the exception of a few regional directors, CEA’s staff is comprised of HBW staff, and to the layman, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

HBW’s Washington, D.C., office sits in a giant truncated pyramid of a building, with sloped outer walls, that overlooks Farragut Square on the city’s lobbyist-dense K Street. The firm has offices in five other cities in the U.S. and Canada and has its fingers in many pies. Its 18 employees manage not only CEA, but also the Energy Producing States Coalition, a group of state lawmakers that work on energy policy, and the National Ocean Policy Coalition, a collection of energy companies, commercial fishing organizations and other business interests that opposes the Obama administration’s oceans policy. Whatley is also the vice president of Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, ostensibly a group of Nebraskans who support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The firm lobbies on behalf of just a handful of clients, including Noble Energy and The Babcock and Wilcox Company, which makes nuclear reactors and other industrial power equipment.

HBW employees have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to dozens of political campaigns. Notably, they gave $1,600 to Democrat Terry McAuliffe — who, following his election as governor of Virginia last year, joined the governors coalition after Whatley and Joubert made a direct appeal to one of his senior advisers during a December meeting. They also gave more than $8,300 to Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina within a day of a coalition meeting that Haley attended, in Houston in 2013.

One of the firm’s first major campaigns began in late 2009, when Whatley worked with a Canadian diplomat to help block state and federal attempts in the U.S. to pass low-carbon fuel standards, which could have threatened imports from Canada’s tar sands oil deposits.

The effort previewed what would become a recurring strategy for Whatley and his colleagues: pairing a public advocacy campaign with direct, behind-the-scenes appeals to elected officials, urging them to make similar public comments in their own voices. More recently, CEA has worked through the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative state legislators group, to oppose a new federal rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

Holt says his organization supports all forms of energy production and is directed by its board, which no longer includes energy companies. “We are a consumer controlled and a consumer funded and a consumer dominated organization,” he said.

Most of its campaigns and communications focus on oil and gas, however. That, coupled with what’s known about its funding, has led some advocacy groups to view CEA as a front group for energy companies, an entity created to give the appearance of an independent and broad-based voice. To these advocacy groups, the governors coalition is just another player in the larger game. “This is a purposed campaign to mislead the public,” said Claire Douglass, campaign director for climate and energy at Oceana, an environmental group that opposes offshore drilling. “The politicians are now doing industry business, not being public servants.”

Gaining speed

The governors coalition’s work inched forward through much of its first year-and-a-half, at least in part because there wasn’t that much it could do. The Interior Department had excluded new areas from the current drilling plan, covering 2012-2017, and it hadn’t yet begun substantive work on the next one. The coalition wrote letters to Congress and the Obama administration (two of which appear to have been edited by Shell and Exxon Mobil), urging open dialogue and pressing on other issues, such as revenue sharing. It held periodic meetings. On December 7, 2012, three Alaska officials — Kip Knudson and Nathan Butzlaff, who led Parnell’s work on the coalition, and state Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell — attended CEA’s holiday party at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, according to emails.

In 2013, the newly-elected McCrory, formerly a Duke Energy executive, joined the coalition, adding an important player in the group’s push for drilling off the South Atlantic coast. The group had a new chairman in Parnell, who before entering office had been ConocoPhillips’ chief lobbyist in Alaska and had worked on energy for Patton Boggs, a D.C. lobbying firm that represented Exxon Mobil.

As part of the coalition’s effort to establish itself, the governors and CEA formalized their relationship with a memorandum of understanding designating CEA as volunteer staffwith specific duties to manage the organization. It held a “strategy session” with the American Petroleum Institute.

In October, the coalition convened at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, alongside the annual gathering of the Southern States Energy Board for what would be a formative meeting. The following year would present the first opportunity for the group to weigh in on the next five-year drilling plan, and the governors and CEA wanted to make sure they were prepared to make their case.

Govs. Parnell, McCrory and Bryant, along with staff of the other governors, met for more than an hour in one of the resort’s ballrooms with executives from Exxon Mobil, Shell, Spectrum Geo — a seismic testing company — and other energy groups, including the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition, to hear their concerns, according to a meeting agenda.

Briefing documents prepared by CEA include talking points on the economic benefits of drilling, saying, “the key is to echo these messages to Congress and the Obama Administration, encouraging them to pursue a sensible path that allows for Atlantic leasing.” The document adds that “coastal governors, legislators, and other stakeholders should play a lead role in delivering the messages below to the Administration and to Congress.”

According to notes from the meeting prepared by CEA’s Joubert, Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore industry group, advised the governors that they could suggest to the Interior Department which areas should be leased, and he “urged the governors to keep their areas of potential interest as broad as possible.” He also warned of “increasing activism by NGOs against seismic activity and cautioned the governors about some of these groups’ false rhetoric.”

The day after the meeting, Tony Almeida, a senior adviser to McCrory, sent an email to Holt saying the governor had agreed to serve as vice-chairman of the coalition. “Great news, Tony!” Holt replied, adding, “Great work yesterday. Pat was outstanding! Lots of key action items. We can’t thank you enough for all your support and leadership on OCSGC. 2014 is going to be… interesting. :)”

An “interesting” year

This year, the debate over drilling in the Atlantic picked up significantly just as the coalition finally gained the sort of direct access to the Obama administration it had been seeking. And, the emails show, CEA played a critical role in helping the governors respond.

Two weeks before the governors’ meeting with Jewell that cold February morning in Washington, officials from Alaska and North Carolina had a series of email exchanges and phone calls with CEA’s Joubert to prepare for the meeting. Joubert advised Donald van der Vaart — North Carolina’s deputy environment secretary, who had been tasked with preparing McCrory — on specific policies, such as what to request regarding seismic testing. Van der Vaart asked Joubert to send talking points, noting that a previous briefing book she had sent was “an amazing resource.”

In that meeting at the Willard, Jewell reportedly told the governors that her job isn’t “to get in the way of development,” but rather “to make sure it’s done right.” She and her staff also noted that environmental organizations had increased scrutiny of seismic testing, so her department would make sure appropriate mitigation measures were in place to protect marine animals.

Just days after the meeting, the Interior Department released a long-awaited environmental assessment that would allow seismic testing, and the governors coalition decided to defer to industry for their response. “Natalie — Would you be able to check with NOIA and/or API to see where they are on their respective reviews/analyses?” wrote Butzlaff, the Parnell staffer, in March, referring to the National Ocean Industries Association and the American Petroleum Institute, and calling Joubert by her first name. Joubert responded that the industry hadn’t yet reached consensus, but that it “has concerns more broadly that setting a precedent for stringent mitigation measures in the Atlantic could affect future measures in the Gulf and the Arctic.”

This past summer, the Interior Department said it would begin reviewing applications for that testing, with those more stringent measures in place. At the same time, it began accepting comments from industry, advocacy groups and other stakeholders on which areas it should open to drilling beginning in 2017.

Representatives of the governors coalition have maintained that it is an open and transparent group that strives to include different viewpoints. But the Center was only able to learn the details of the organization by submitting records requests — which North Carolina still has not provided — and there’s no evidence that opponents of drilling have been invited to any meetings.

Indeed, critics point to that North Carolina meeting earlier this month as the perfect illustration of what’s wrong with the way the governors coalition operates. On Nov. 6, North Carolina hosted a meeting on the five-year planning process that focused on the Atlantic. Officials from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told journalists and environmental groups that the event was invitation only and that “neither special interest groups nor industry representatives” would be present.

That was true in regard to environmental groups — but apparently not for others. During the event, reporters waited in the halls of Raleigh’s Nature Research Center as state and federal officials listened to panel discussions that featured, among others, a CEA staffer and someone from the Center for Offshore Safety, an industry group.

McCrory did allow reporters in, but not until after the meeting was finished, and industry groups had given their presentations. McCrory’s position hasn’t wavered, and he made that clear, telling reporters that “North Carolina ought to participate in our country’s energy independence.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser