Mayo Clinic participated in confidential Trump Tower meeting prior to the 2016 election
It was the summer of 2016. Then candidate Donald Trump was the Republican nominee and — while still cast as a long shot against rival Hillary Clinton — was now a serious contender for the presidency.
To prepare for a potential transition into the White House, Trump assembled a panel of industry titans in energy, finance, transportation, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, defense, construction, and health care. The goal was to solicit their advice and expertise on a wide range of issues.
The inaugural meeting took place in Trump Tower, months before Trump would be elected the 45th president of the United States. Among the handful of healthcare leaders represented at the table: Mayo Clinic.
Not much had previously been revealed about the group, known as the Trump Leadership Council, until earlier this month when Rolling Stone published a story: “The Shadow Cabinet: How a Group of Powerful Business Leaders Drove Trump’s Agenda.” The article marked the first time members of the council had been named publicly. (Those who joined the council, the report says, were told the meeting would be “totally confidential.”)
Kathleen Harrington, who at the time was Mayo Clinic’s director of government relations in Washington, confirmed to us Thursday she attended the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower on behalf of Mayo.
Harrington was joined by other healthcare leaders, including Kelby Krabbenhoft, CEO of Sioux Falls-based Sanford Health, and Kristen Morris, head of government and community relations for Cleveland Clinic.
It would be the only meeting of its kind, though Rolling Stone reports that many of the players in the room would go on to play influential roles as Trump began to set policy from inside the Oval Office.
Their impact, the report says, has led to sweeping changes to federal policy, particularly when it comes environmental deregulation.
Harrington, however, only attended the one meeting.
Speaking to us by phone earlier today, she described an experience you might not expect if you turn on the nightly news, or log on to Twitter, for that matter.
“The conversation around the table, which included representatives from many sectors, was substantive and largely focused on the economic impact of the regulatory environment,” she told us.
As the conversation turned to healthcare, Harrington said Trump was responsive and “showed a deep understanding” of the subject matter. She recalls telling friends and colleagues after the meeting how different the man in the room was that day compared to the one America saw on the campaign trail.
The table was “pretty full,” she said, so the interaction was brief. But as industry leaders made their cases for various reforms, she said Mayo’s message “was a little different.” Trump had campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of then President Obama. But Harrington’s message to Trump was not ‘repeal and replace’; instead, she advised the president to begin looking at specific regulations and the impacts they were having on the healthcare system.
Mayo has long had a complicated relationship with the ACA — often praising the law for expanding healthcare access to millions while simultaneously railing against some of its “burdensome” regulations. Still, only a year prior to the Trump Tower meeting, Mayo’s top leader had offered support for a Supreme Court decision upholding the healthcare law.
“It is important that we not step back from our commitment to health insurance coverage for all Americans,” Dr. John Noseworthy, the former president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, said in 2015.
Harrington, now the president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, did not get into the specifics of her statements to Trump.
Reached Thursday afternoon, Mayo spokesperson Karl Oestreich confirmed Harrington’s participation, but did not respond to questions regarding the organization’s lobbying priorities at the time.
In 2016, the year of the election, Mayo spent $1.1 million on lobbying efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Mayo Clinic offers its perspectives on issues when called upon,” said Oestreich. “Kathleen participated with others in this setting.”
While the council eventually fizzled out — Harrington was only asked to participate once — Mayo did leave the door open to providing future input. That was evident when in late 2016, after the election but before the inauguration, Noseworthy joined other top-tier healthcare executives for a meeting with Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Noseworthy eventually went on to be part of a committee assembled by Trump to focus on veterans’ healthcare. He retired at the end of 2018.
In dealing with Trump, Mayo has shielded itself from criticism by pointing to its long history of working with the current administration. That policy, according to Mayo, dates back to when Abraham Lincoln was in office.
Oestreich, however, could not say whether Mayo had been asked to advise other candidates, including Clinton, in the same capacity.
Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.
Cover photo: Trump Tower in New York / Travis Wise on Flickr