Lobbyists uncertain of their place in Trump's Washington

Lobbyists uncertain of their place in Trump's Washington
© Greg Nash

Lobbyists have a question for President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump signs bill averting shutdown after brief funding lapse Privacy, civil rights groups demand transparency from Amazon on election data breaches Facebook takes down Trump campaign ads tying refugees to coronavirus MORE: Are we in or are we out?

Advocates in Washington are uncertain about how they will fit into Trump’s administration after he railed against their industry during his march to the White House.


In the final three weeks of the 2016 campaign, Trump unveiled five ethics proposals aimed at curbing lobbyist influence and “draining the swamp.”

But he has not yet said what he will do about the restrictions on lobbyists put in place by President Obama.

“We’re in the fog on where Trump is going to go on this. He doesn’t like lobbyists, but he knows that he needs them,” said Ron Bonjean, a partner at Rokk Solutions. “He needs them in his transition, but he also needs them in his administration.”

In one of his first acts as president, Obama signed an executive order that placed limits on who could work in the administration, what they could do when they left and what kind of gifts they could accept.

One policy bans individuals who were registered lobbyists in the two years before joining the administration from working on the issues they dealt with in the private sector.

Obama also strengthened existing conflict-of-interest rules for exiting political appointees, mandating that officials cannot leave the government and lobby the highest-ranking administration officials. That provision stipulates that former senior officials who want to lobby must wait two years to advocate before their previous federal agency.

All of those restrictions on lobbyists could be overhauled or rescinded by Trump on day one of his presidency, should he issue choose to issue his own executive order on the subject.

“I don’t think they’re going to make the same mistake the Obama administration did, by limiting the ability by some of the best and brightest to join the administration and help the country just because they have a lobbying background,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at The McCormick Group.

A Republican lobbyist, who asked not to be named, added: “The influence industry didn’t shrink” following Obama’s proposals. It just went largely underground.

Trump had a handful of lobbyists serving on his transition team, including some who had been recently recruited. However, after Vice President-elect Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceDebates panel says changes under consideration 'to ensure a more orderly discussion' Biden, Trump clash at vicious, ugly debate Supreme Court nominee gives no clues in GOP meeting MORE replaced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the helm of the transition effort on Tuesday evening, all of the registered lobbyists were let go.

However, the shakeup of the transition included bringing on former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.).

Hoekstra is a registered lobbyist, according to lobbying disclosure records, representing Core Energy, an oil exploration technology company, and Columbia Helicopters at his own firm, Hoekstra Global Strategies. He previously worked for K Street giant Greenberg Traurig, where he was listed on contracts for tobacco companies ITG Brands and Lorillard, Peabody Energy and cybersecurity company FireEye, among others.

The addition seems to muddy the message that lobbyists are not welcome in the budding administration, leaving many on K Street wondering what role they will play.

Mike DuHaime, a partner at Mercury based in its New York and New Jersey offices, says it would be in Trump’s best interest to pursue the policies he talked about on the campaign trail.

“He’s going to want to set a tone, a ‘drain the swamp’ tone. People around the country are sick of are the insider deals and the revolving door,” said DuHaime, a veteran of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) gubernatorial campaigns who also held a senior role working for another member of Trump’s orbit, Rudy Giuliani.

Don McGahn, a partner at Jones Day who served as counsel to Trump’s campaign who is also working on the transition, did not respond to a request for comment about the future of Obama’s lobbying policies.

One practical consideration for Trump when it comes to lobbyist policies is staffing.

His incoming administration has more than 4,000 positions to fill, and only 70 days — between Election Day and his inauguration — to do it.

To fill those spots, Bonjean said, “they need to make it as welcome as possible while at the same time trying to uphold Trump’s lobbyist pledge in some manner. Finding that balance is going to be hard for them.”

Trump’s rhetoric toward lobbyists on the campaign trail was harshly critical, as he repeatedly accused other candidates of being too easily influenced by moneyed interests.

“The lobbyists have — they totally control these politicians,” Trump told Anderson Cooper on CNN earlier this year. “I see [also-ran GOP presidential candidate Jeb] Bush with the lobbyists. And he’s sitting there with all of these people. They’re totally telling them what to do, like a little puppet. And the same with Hillary [Clinton], and the same with everybody else.”

Less than a month before Election Day, his campaign released five ethics proposals aimed at cracking down on the lobbying profession. They would largely take an act of Congress — an uphill battle.

Among other things, the plan would impose a five-year ban on “White House and Congressional officials” becoming lobbyists after they leave government service and create a lifetime ban on “senior executive branch officials” representing a foreign government.

Trump said in an Oct. 23 rally in Gettysburg, Pa., that instituting some of those ethics reforms would be a priority on his first day in office.

Marc Lampkin, head of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s Washington office, predicted that Trump would not only keep much of Obama’s lobbyist order, “he would tighten it.”

“He doesn’t give a shit if you can’t go back to becoming a lobbyist later,” added Lampkin, who helped fundraise for Trump and also criticized the effectiveness of Obama’s lobbying ban. “He is driven less by ideology than gut. And the gut on this is saying we need to clean the system up and let’s do things that are more pristine.”

Unlike Obama’s policies, Trump’s lobbying reforms would apply equally to political appointees and career officials. But the Republican would likely need action from Congress to expand the rules beyond senior officials or White House appointees.

“I’m sure they will not adopt Obama’s executive order on ethics, but because Trump made a big deal of announcing an ethics reform package during the campaign, they will probably adopt some version of it after the inauguration,” said Rob Kelner, the chairman of Covington & Burling’s election and political law practice.

“There were a lot of ambiguities in his ethics reform plan, so they have a lot of flexibility in what they do,” he added.

Obama also ushered in restrictions on meetings between White House staff and lobbyists, which helped to drive the industry underground. Officials often met with advocates in a coffee shop across from the White House to avoid showing up in visitor logs.

Releasing White House visitor logs to the public was another initiative of the Obama administration — something Trump could also revoke.

“What I think is clear is that he is not going to keep [Obama’s lobbying ban] for the sake of keeping it because President Obama had it,” DuHaime said. “It felt good and it sounded good — but at the end of the day, I don’t believe it made a difference.”

— Updated at 10:39 a.m.