The Partnership for Open and Fair Skies appears to be distancing itself from the public relations firm running its campaign after reports that anti-Trump consultants helped sink its bid to levy a tax against Gulf carriers in the tax cut bill.
The partnership represents legacy carriers Delta, American, and United Airlines, and is advocating for restricting open skies agreements with Qatar Airways, Emirates Airline, and Etihad Airways. Its top-hired PR firm is SKDKnickerbocker, which is run by former Obama aides and Democratic strategists.
The partnership has used President Donald Trump's remarks on trade and protecting American workers to promote its agenda to freeze new routes made by its Middle East competitors.
"Rigged trade deals destroy American jobs, foreign state-owned airlines cheat on trade deals by using their billions to threaten U.S. workers," the partnership states on a video featured on its Facebook page.
"These trade deals put 300,000 American jobs at risk, but that's about to change"—the video then transitions to President Trump.
"We will stand up to trade cheating, anywhere and everywhere it threatens the American job," Trump says in the video. The partnership concludes, "Protect American jobs, stop the cheating."
The pro-Trump ads are a stark contrast to the anti-Trump statements from consultants working on the campaign.
Former Obama White House communications aides Anita Dunn and Bill Burton run SKDKnickerbocker, which reportedly has received the most from the partnership at $1.7 million.
The spokesperson for the partnership is Jill Zuckman, a managing director at SKDKnickerbocker and former official in the Obama Department of Transportation. Zuckman regularly tweeted against Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, calling an October debate #painful and remarking that Hillary Clinton maintained her "dignity despite the onslaught of crazy being hurled at her."
SKDKnickerbocker has featured anti-Trump editorials on its website, including an editorial written by its senior vice president comparing Trump to mass shooter Dylann Roof and domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.
"No American who loves this country has the excuse, cover or capacity to waver and shrink and hide behind skirts after this week," wrote SKDK senior vice president Jon Reinish. "If you are with Trump, and his despicable irresponsibility, his bloodthirsty hate for who we are, you have no right to call yourself a patriot. Make the choice. It's now or never."
The firm collected at least $1.7 million from the partnership, which now ties itself to Trump's rhetoric on trade and protectionism for American jobs.
The Partnership for Open and Fair Skies tried but failed to include a provision in the Republican tax cut bill in the Senate, which would have taxed Gulf carriers $200 million over 10 years. The partnership has so far failed to convince either the Obama or Trump administration to reopen the open sky agreements with Qatar and UAE. The tax was seen as another way for the legacy carriers led by Delta to go after its Middle East competitors, which they contend unfairly subsidize their state-owned airlines.
The New York Times reported on Dec. 15 that the failure was due, in part, to anti-Trump statements made by consultants working on behalf of the partnership.
"When a lobbyist for the travel industry wanted to kill an amendment to the tax bill sought by Delta Air Lines over concerns it would dampen United States tourism, he emailed Republican tax writers with links to a series of posts written by consultants who have worked with Delta that were sharply critical of President Trump," the Times reported.
"The implication from the emails—one of which arrived under the subject line, ‘Delta Lobbyists: RESIST'—was that Republicans should not reward a company whose representatives were bad-mouthing the party's leaders," the Times added.
Since reporting on the campaign's ties to Obama administration alums and the Times story, Zuckman has not appeared as spokesperson on the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies website.
Instead, Scott Reed, a Republican strategist and lobbyist for the partnership, is quoted in a press release praising the president's national security strategy outline he delivered on Dec. 18.
"Congratulations to President Trump for advancing a national security vision where protecting American jobs is integral to our nation’s very security," said Reed, who is listed as a campaign manager for the partnership. "In calling out ‘chronic trade abuses' in the National Security Strategy, the Trump administration has made it crystal clear that the days of rampant trade cheating by two Mideast governments are over."
Reed is the senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the registered lobbyist for the partnership. His firm, Chesapeake Enterprises, received $280,000 for lobbying in 2017 for the partnership. Reed is a longtime Republican operative who worked on Bob Dole's presidential campaign.
"Just last week, the Trump administration took a major step forward in ensuring our Open Skies agreements will be enforced and massive foreign subsidies will not be tolerated," Reed said. "Today's announcement is further proof that the Trump administration will defend American businesses and American workers from countries that violate our international agreements."
Reed was referring to the State Department's announcement that it would not take action at this time on penalizing Gulf carriers, but would continue informal discussions about subsidies while preserving the open skies agreements.
Supporters of open skies agreements praised the decision, including U.S. Airlines for Open Skies, which represents Atlas Air Worldwide, FedEx, Hawaiian Airlines, and JetBlue Airways.
"The legacy carriers are still unable to show harm, still cannot point to a specific violation of the agreements, and still refuse to go through the established 180-day review that would provide an independent, government assessment of their claims," the coalition said. "We are confident further investigation by the Trump administration will show the claims for what they are: a political ploy to protect themselves from competition and limit choice for U.S. travelers."
Republican communications firms have supported the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies, as well, including CRC Public Relations. Reached for comment, Reed praised the effort as bipartisan.
"Protecting the 1.2 million American workers supported by the U.S. aviation industry from the unfair Gulf carrier subsidies has widespread support from both sides of the aisle—including more than 300 members of Congress," he said. "We are pleased with the progress that President Trump has made and we are committed to continuing to work with the administration to enforce our Open Skies agreements and stand up for American workers."
The Partnership for Open and Fair Skies has hired several other Democratic communications firms aside from SKDKnickerbocker, including paying $620,000 to the Messina Group, founded by Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager in 2012.
Messina routinely attacks the president, including calling Trump the "embodiment of humanity's worst instincts" and "devoid of integrity, human decency, and shame." He has called the Trump administration a "failure from top to bottom" and said Trump being president makes "all of us cry." Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist and CNN analyst who is also a managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, feels the same way.
Request for comment from Dunn and Zuckman was not returned.