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Countries turn to K Street as they seek relief from Trump’s tariffs

Countries turn to K Street as they seek relief from Trump’s tariffs
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE's protectionist trade policies have led to a hiring spree on K Street, as countries seeking to escape tariffs bring on new firms to convince the White House and Congress that they should be treated favorably.

Since the beginning of 2017, eight countries have added roughly two dozen firms to work on trade issues, according to disclosures filed to the Justice Department and counted by The Hill.

Those countries — Japan, South Korea, Bahrain, Australia, United Arab Emirates, China, Canada and Mexico — already have other firms on retainer.

So far, countries including South Korea, Canada, Mexico and Australia won exemptions from new tariffs the Trump administration has slapped on imports of aluminum and steel. But Japan, an ally to the U.S. that has been in regular talks with the White House, did not.

“This tariff thing, where you basically have to go plead your case with the president's team or [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross to get an exemption from tariffs on your company or country. … I don't think I've ever seen anything like it in Washington,” one Republican lobbyist told The Hill. “It's like the ticket desk at Dulles [International Airport] in a snowstorm where you have 472 people trying to fight for eight available seats on a plane.”

The steel and aluminum tariffs are just one example of how Trump’s approach on trade has thrown people off-balance.

Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with Pacific Rim countries, last year, but he has been flirting with rejoining it. And while the administration is negotiating with Canada and Mexico to make changes to the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trump has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the deal if he’s unhappy with concessions from the two countries.

The U.S. is also working on changes to its bilateral deal with South Korea.

The administration’s trade moves are creating big business on K Street.

The 25 firms recently hired by those eight countries have been paid more than $4 million for their work since last year. When the tally is expanded to include firms the countries already had on retainer, the figure climbs to upwards of $13.7 million.

While lobbying hires are common at the beginning of a new presidential administration, Trump’s rhetoric on trade has likely fueled many of the recent enlistments.

One contract, on behalf of Sinopec Group, China’s state-owned petroleum company, is frank about the issue.

Trump “has been highly critical of America's existing trade deals, ‘cheating’ by countries like China and Japan and employed nationalist rhetoric about keeping jobs in the USA,” according to the Chinese firm’s contract with Cowan Strategies Company, which was filed with the Justice Department. “Unlike in many other areas of policy, he takes an active interest in trade and plans to focus on the issue."

“Between his campaign rhetoric and actions so far when it comes to trade, Trump has shown that he is serious about getting his way on the issue. This administration is more likely than previous administrations to take actions in this area that could impact Sinopec's business in the United States,” it says.

Lobbyists told The Hill that the Trump administration’s approach on trade has spurred confusion among clients.

“They’ve set it up so every country has to go to the administration and specifically ask for a one-off exclusion,” said one lobbyist who works for foreign governments, asking to stay anonymous to talk about client matters. “This is all set up so the administration can negotiate one-on-one, and have other countries be the supplicants. I don't think that's healthy for a friendly bilateral relationship, but that's the dynamic.”

The disclosures, and dollar amounts, calculated by The Hill only represent a small amount that the eight countries spent to lobby on trade over the past year, and focus primarily on the countries that have hired firms — or recently re-upped contracts — involving trade.

Japan has hired nine new firms since the beginning of last year, including ones not involved in trade policy, and has almost two dozen on retainer overall. South Korea has brought on six.

Disclosures show that some of the firms working for Japan have held meetings at the White House and with congressional staffers. Many other countries, including Canada and Mexico, have also been chatting up congressional staff.

Firms have also circulated articles and press releases about the contributions countries make to the American economy, and other materials that bolster their client’s image. Advocates for Mexico circulated a letter from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) sent to U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerMcConnell urges GOP senators to call Trump about tariffs Companies brace for trade war MORE talking up NAFTA.

The governor “had previously been quiet” on the issue, read an email from FTI Consulting, a firm hired last year to represent Mexico.

Some of the most aggressive trade actions from the Trump administration thus far have been directed at China, which Trump claims steals intellectual property from American companies. The president said last week that he would impose $60 billion worth in tariffs on the country as punishment.

The Chinese government or government-funded entities or corporations have brought on three new firms within the past year to polish its reputation with the U.S.

Adding to the confusion for countries dealing with the U.S. is the hands-on role some of Trump’s own family members play in foreign affairs. Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | How Trump could work with a Dem House | Trump heads to Florida to view hurricane damage Watchdog files Hatch Act complaint against Sanders for picture with Kanye in MAGA hat The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — Latest on Hurricane Michael | Trump, Kanye West to have lunch at White House | GOP divided over potential 2020 high court vacancy MORE, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, acted as the administration’s delegate to South Korea at the end of the Winter Olympics.

“It shows you where we are,” the lobbyist working for foreign governments told The Hill, of the involvement of president’s daughter in diplomatic affairs.

“Those are the questions people ask: Who do we talk to, who has influence?" he said. "They don't look at these issues purely through the lens of trade, but also look at it through the lens of alliance, national security and economic partnership.”

Kaitlin Milliken, Kayiu Wong and Vicki Needham contributed