Washington’s revolving door: can Trump staffers find lobbying jobs?

Immediately after Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017 with a promise to “drain the swamp”, he attempted to slam shut the revolving door between the US government and the lobbying industry.

Mr Trump demanded that any incoming member of his administration sign a pledge that they would not engage in lobbying for at least five years after leaving public service.

But on Wednesday at 1am, the outgoing president revoked Executive Order 13770, which enforced the mandate, with a stroke of a pen, in one of his final acts before departing the White House.

In theory, the move should make it easier for members of his administration to find new jobs on K Street in Washington, the epicentre of the city’s $3.5bn-a-year lobbying industry.

But some observers say the employment prospects for members of Team Trump remain bleak now that Joe Biden is in the White House, especially as Democrats also have a majority in Congress and control the Senate by the narrowest of margins.

Meredith McGehee, an expert in ethics and politics, said their chances of finding a new gig had declined further still since the deadly attack on the US Capitol this month — especially after many corporate Political Action Committees distanced themselves from Republican efforts to block the certification of Mr Biden’s election.

“I think it means that the job prospects of people coming out of the Trump administration are pretty much in the toilet right now,” said Ms McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a non-profit that tries to reduce the role of money in politics.

Mr Trump’s decision to reverse the ban is not without precedent; Bill Clinton also lifted a similar restriction during his final weeks in office. But it prompted accusations of hypocrisy given that Mr Trump campaigned so heavily on emptying what he described as Washington’s deep pool of corruption.

One person close to the ex-president said they were surprised Mr Trump had revoked the order, and suggested that he had been leaned on by members of his orbit who were desperate to find a landing pad after leaving government.

“Some folks clearly needed it and thought it made sense and got him at a weak moment,” the person said.

Still, Jeff Hauser, executive director at the Revolving Door Project, which monitors links between business and government, said the lifting of the ban would make very little difference in practice to some of those hunting for a new job.

The majority of Mr Trump’s political appointees fell into three categories, Mr Hauser said.

The first group were the “elite Republicans” who had worked under the likes of Steven Mnuchin at the US Treasury, Jay Clayton at the SEC, and Brian Brooks at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. These people would probably land on their feet, given that their bosses had managed to insulate their reputations from the taint of Mr Trump, he said.

The second group were people who would never have gotten a job in government were it not for the “unique status” of Trump’s administration, which hired an eclectic group to fill political roles. The agriculture department, for instance, hired a long-haul truck driver and a person who served drinks at a country club. Their prospects on K Street are virtually non-existent, Mr Hauser said.

But it is the third group that might be most disappointed, according to Mr Hauser: staffers with “decent traditional resumes” in their twenties and thirties, who now face a significantly bleaker job market than they might have done if they had served in a more conventional administration.

K Street is already preparing for the post-Trump era. Earlier this month, Brian Ballard, a top Trump fundraiser who once worked as one of his lobbyists, announced his firm would add three Democrats to its Washington office. Mr Ballard said the hires would “continue to grow our firm’s ability to effectively advocate on both sides of the aisle”.

Some ex-Trump associates who left his orbit before the waning days of the administration have found jobs at established lobbying firms and consulting groups.

Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign adviser, is a partner at Washington lobbying and public affairs firm Mercury LLC. Eric Branstad, a former White House adviser in Mr Trump’s commerce department, is now managing director at Mercury’s Iowa office.

Corey Lewandowski, who once served as Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign manager joined Turnberry Solutions, the lobbying shop founded by three former Trump campaign aides, in 2019. Ryan Zinke, the former interior secretary, joined the company the same year.

Some ethics experts say the new market for Washington lobbyists will prove more consequential than Mr Trump’s lifting of the ban, given that many ex-officials have found ways of circumventing the rules.

“You have to be almost brain-dead to get caught up in the lobbying ban that Trump had,” said Ms McGehee of Issue One, noting that an individual is only mandated to register as a lobbyist if they spend 20 per cent of their working hours lobbying — a measurement that is virtually impossible to verify.

“If you don’t want to register, it’s very easy to evade the limits . . . It relies on self-compliance, but there is basically no hammer,” she said.

Despite the ban, OpenSecrets has identified more than 200 people who had worked in the Trump administration only to leave and work as lobbyists, or who came into the Trump administration after working on K Street.

Said Mr Hauser: “One of the rarely told stories of the Trump years was how little his executive order — relatively decent by historical standards — was actually enforced.”

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