Top Trump-era lobbyist: 'It's not going to be the same'

Top Trump-era lobbyist: 'It's not going to be the same'
© Courtesy Ballard Partners

One of the most powerful lobbyists during the Trump years is acknowledging that the future will be different now that the former president, with whom he has close ties, has left town.

Brian Ballard, founder of Ballard Partners, used to be a top fundraiser for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE, and their relationship stretches back to when he was Trump's own lobbyist in Florida.

The past four years were good to Ballard.

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He was the top lobbyist in terms of new clients in 2018, 2019 and 2020, signing 145 last year, putting him well ahead of his closest competitors at 104 clients.

Ballard Partners was the fifth highest-grossing lobbying firm in 2020, when it brought in $24.6 million, up from $19.1 million the previous year.

But things are different now.

“We’re realistic. Obviously, we’re not going to continue that trajectory over the next four years,” Ballard told The Hill on Thursday.

“We had a wonderful run, we’re going to be here to stay, but it's not going to be the same,” he said.

The firm this month hired Courtney Whitney, a Democratic fundraiser who consulted for pro-Biden super PAC Priorities USA, to build up its Democratic influence.

“What do we want the firm to look like in the next four to 10 years? And that’s what we’re trying to evolve now. We’re going to take this time to shape and add personnel and whatever clients we choose to take in the future that it’s something we are building for the long-term, not for a period that you’re drinking from a fire hose,” Ballard said.

Ballard Partners is known for taking on foreign clients, from Kosovo to Turkey, but its founder said he has been backing away from that in recent years.

“It is fraught with just so much difficulty. One time, when I actually did lobby the president, because I had to report it, was when I mentioned just briefly that the president of Kosovo wanted to meet with the president and as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I said ‘Oh, I’ve got to report this,’ ” he said.

Otherwise, Ballard said that lobbying Trump directly was rare.

“He does not look upon the profession of lobbying highly, I think he doesn’t like lobbyists in general. And so, lobbying him was few and far between, literally very rarely,” he said. “Anybody that knows Donald Trump would know that lobbying him would be fraught with peril and probably not what makes the most sense.”

Since the end of the administration, no high-profile Trump officials have landed roles at lobbying shops, though Ballard left the door open to taking some into his firm.

“If there’s any talent out there, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, and they can make us better, yeah, we’re talking to folks. We’re talking to a lot of folks right now,” he said.

The first quarter of 2021 lobbying disclosures will give watchers an early glimpse of how Trump-connected lobbyists will fare under Biden.

Others include David Tamasi, who served 20 clients in 2020 including iHeartMedia and the Compass Group. Tamasi is the co-founder of Chartwell Strategy Group and was the 2016 Trump Victory finance chairman.

Rick Dearborn, Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, had eight clients at his firm Mindset, including MetLife and Verizon, and Scott Mason, director of congressional relations for Trump’s 2016 campaign, is at Holland & Knight, which claimed the seventh highest-grossing firm spot in 2020.

Mason, who’s a senior policy adviser at the firm, said he will focus more on his congressional relationships under the Biden administration.

“The reason that I was brought onto the Trump campaign in 2016 was specifically because of my congressional relationships in the House and the Senate. Now it’s just time to refocus on a lot of those relationships and go back to the blocking and tackling that I did for decades,” he said.

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Another Trump-connected lobbyist at a big bipartisan firm is Mercury Public Affairs' Bryan Lanza, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Lanza worked for 16 clients last year, including the American Distilled Spirits Association and Emergent BioSolutions.

And David Urban, an adviser on both of Trump’s campaigns, is now executive vice president of North American corporate affairs at ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company.

—Updated Monday at 11:58 a.m.