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Feeding Frenzy in Trump’s Swamp

By Taylor Lincoln

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Days before last November’s election, Donald Trump leaned into a microphone before a raucous crowd in Las Vegas and explained how he came to embrace the phrase that became a rallying cry of his presidential campaign.

“You know, I told people the other day ‘Drain the swamp,’ and I said I don’t really like that expression … So hokey, I thought it was hokey … And I said it two weeks ago to a big crowd, and I said it, and the place went crazy. Then, I said it a second time and the place went even crazier. And then the third time, like you, they started saying it before I said it.

“And all of a sudden, I decided I love that expression. It’s a great expression! Crazy. Right? Drain the swamp.”

The crowd chanted: “Drain the swamp. Drain the swamp. Drain the swamp. Drain the swamp….”

When Trump debuted the “drain the swamp” rhetoric in mid-October 2016, he released a five-point ethics reform plan. Each plank had to do with cracking down on lobbyists, particularly the phenomenon known as the “revolving door” in which individuals move back and forth between the government working as highly paid lobbyists.

But Trump discarded the “drain the swamp” sentiment as quickly as he embraced it. After his upset win, Trump welcomed swarms of lobbyists onto his transition team, which was tasked with performing such key functions as recommending appointees to the incoming administration and shaping its policies. Many of these lobbyists were worked for the transition team on policy areas that were directly related to their work for private sector clients.

Those close to Trump suggested that the president-elect did not take his “drain the swamp” promise seriously. “If you had to put them into chronological order, drain the swamp is probably somewhere down the bottom,” compared with other Trump priorities, said Corey Lewandowski, who maintained close ties to Trump even after being fired as his campaign manager.

In reality, instead of presaging a crackdown on lobbyists, Trump’s election spelled opportunity for them. Those with ties to Trump raced to engage in the same behavior that Trump decried on the campaign trail: cashing in on insider connections.

In June, Public Citizen reported that the Trump administration had appointed 133 past or present registered lobbyists to executive branch positions, including 36 who had recently lobbied on issues of direct relevance to their new government posts.

This report looks at the phenomenon of people going the other direction, using their connections to Trump or Vice President Mike Pence to initiate or expand their lobbying careers, Public Citizen built a database of domestic and foreign lobbying reports, which are required under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and Foreign Agent Registration Act.

Findings in Brief

  • 44 individuals with ties to Trump or Pence have acted as registered lobbyists in 2017. They are connected to billings and in-house lobbying expenditures in 2017 of nearly $42 million, with $32.2 million coming from domestic sources and $9.5 million from foreign entities.
  • Seven of the 10 most lucrative lobbying clients for Trump or Pence-connected lobbyists have been foreign interests.
  • At least 22 people who worked on the Trump transition team have worked as registered lobbyists so far in 2017. They are associated with $19 million in billings.
  •  At least five members of the Trump transition team were reported on federal lobbying forms covering the transition period as “no longer expected” to work as lobbyists, yet resumed lobbying for the same clients in the first half of 2017.
  • At least four members of the Trump transition team or administration have said that they never signed ethics pledges that laid out restrictions on lobbying.
  •  Newcomers to Washington lobbying are prospering. For example, Brian Ballard, a well- known Florida lobbyist who had represented the Trump Organization in the Sunshine State, had never before acted as a federal lobbyist. After Trump was elected, Ballard opened a Washington, D.C., office, which billed 36 clients $5.2 million in the first half of 2017.
  • Lobbyists in Vice President Mike Pence’s circle are also seeing an influx of new clients. Robert Grand, an Indianapolis lawyer and a longtime fundraiser for Vice President Mike Pence had acted as a lobbyist in recent years but had not signed a new federal client since 2013. So far in 2017, Grand signed 17 new clients.