WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – To hear President Donald Trump tell it, he "never appreciated" the importance of drilling in an Alaskan refuge until an energy industry titan called to explain the 40-year history of the battle between environmentalists and oil barons.
"It's amazing how that had an impact. That had a very big impact on me, Paul, I really didn't care about it," Trump said Thursday at the congressional Republican retreat here, looking at House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
That's not exactly true, according to one Alaska Republican.
"No, no, no, look," Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said in an interview after Trump's speech, recalling exactly how he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, made their pitch. "We had the opportunity to brief the president last year. It was early, like February or March. Over an hour, in the Oval, you know, that's a lot of time."
Sullivan said that the senators went into deep detail about the controversial project.
"It was maps, it was on his desk, Zinke was there. And it was all about Alaska, all about Alaska issues, all about our priorities. And we talked about ANWR," he recalled.
The Alaskan senators were pleased with how well-versed Trump already was about the state.
"He actually knew a fair amount about Alaska," Sullivan said, noting how Trump's grandfather worked on Chilkoot Trail, an 1890s route that led to the Yukon gold fields. "It's pretty amazing history. His grandfather was there."
Long controversial, Republicans included legislation to open up the refuge to drilling as part of the massive package that passed in December that was headlined by the $1.5 trillion tax-cut plan. It was often overlooked in the debate because of the sweeping import of the tax plan and a provision that eliminated the mandate to buy health insurance that was first imposed in the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
But ANWR has been a big issue for Alaska Republicans for 40 years, with Republican presidents failing to win new drilling there and Democratic presidents blocking any effort because they viewed it as an environmental threat, particularly to local caribou.
Including the ANWR provision early in the debate all but guaranteed support from Sullivan and Murkowski for the overall tax package. Indeed, after beating back the last amendment to try to strip the drilling provision during the tax votes in December, Murkowski celebrated by fist bumping Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Yet Thursday, in a speech that doubled almost as a comedy routine, Trump repeatedly made it sound as if a New York real estate guy would know little about the issue.
"Is it true you're thinking about ANWR?" Trump recalled the energy industry friend asking him. "I said, 'Yeah I think we're going to get it but you know.' "
His friend cut him off: "Are you kidding? That's the biggest thing by itself."
Only then, Trump said, did he understand the issue. "I really didn't care about it, and then when I heard that everybody wanted it for 40 years, they've been trying to get it approved and I said, 'Make sure you don't lose ANWR,' " he said.
After Trump recounted the anecdote Thursday to laughter, Sullivan interjected from the crowd, shouting at the president: "We know you cared about ANWR all along though."
Sullivan declined to say Thursday whether Trump was telling a story just to make the audience of lawmakers chuckle.
But he said there was no doubt the president understood the issue and its importance early last year. "Hey, that's a legislative thing we've got to get done, Mr. President," Sullivan remembered telling Trump. "It's not going to be easy, but having the White House support on that is going to be important."
Trump has not wavered on the issue, aside from his remarks Thursday.
"He's been rock solid on this, ever since, ever since," Sullivan said.