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Come February, Will Trump-Linked Lobby Firms Be Shown The Door?

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump

Several months after President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, SMW Partners was hired to lobby the White House on behalf of two high-profile clients from the former Soviet Union: one of Ukraine’s richest tycoons and a Kremlin-controlled company building a controversial natural gas export pipeline to Europe.

SMW Partners had only been set up in early 2017 by Trump transition executive committee member John Sweeney, but the contracts it concluded in August to represent Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Nord Stream 2 were among nine that the small firm would scoop up that year, helping it pull in $1.2 million in revenue.

Sweeney, a former Republican congressman from New York state, is just one of a handful of former Trump campaign or transition officials to leverage their ties to the administration as a paid lobbyist. But with the president on his way out in January 2021, industry observers say their work could dry up.

“After pretty much any election, whether it’s a midterm election or brings in a new president, there is always some shuffling around that goes on,” Dan Auble, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsible Politics, which runs the Open Secrets website that tracks lobbying activity, told RFE/RL.

“What’s going to be fascinating this time is to see what happens to those firms that kind of popped up out of nowhere because they had ties to President Trump one way or another,” he said.

When Trump, a real-estate developer and reality TV host with no prior political experience, won the presidency in 2016, few of the firms that dominate the Washington lobbying scene had any connections to his incoming administration.

That opened the door for members of his campaign and transition team who did not end up with jobs in the administration to potentially capitalize on their proximity to Trump by lobbying for companies or foreign entities eager for insights or channels of communication.

Lobbyists seek to shape legislation, regulation, or foreign policy on behalf of a client generally by contacting or meeting with government officials from the legislative and executive branches, a process that can be easier when one has personal connections.

It is often former legislators, legislative assistants, and members of the executive branch who become lobbyists, because they are familiar with the intricacies of policymaking in Washington and have connections to people in power.

This practice is referred to in the industry as the “revolving door” and works in the opposite direction, with lobbyists taking up positions in administrations to work on policy issues they once lobbied.

The construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The company building it hired a lobbying firm set up in 2017 and with connections to President Trump.
The construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The company building it hired a lobbying firm set up in 2017 and with connections to President Trump.

Former members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are now prohibited from lobbying their ex-colleagues for a period of one and two years, respectively. A similar restriction applies to senior White House officials.

Partially as a result of the “revolving door” and various scandals, the term lobbying has acquired a negative connotation in the United States, with some in the industry preferring to describe their work as government relations or consulting.

In 1995, amid growing concerns over industry transparency, Congress passed the Lobbying Disclosure Act which required lobbyists to register with Congress, report who they represented, which branches of government they met with, and what issues they discussed. Lobbyists have had to register since the 1930s when working for foreign governments and the reporting requirements are more strenuous.

Several of the lobbyists connected to Trump had little or no prior lobbying experience in Washington but enjoyed success, signing up many clients and earning millions.

In The Pipeline

As the White House tends to have greater influence over foreign policy than domestic policy, the new lobby shops set up by Trump loyalists grabbed a share of the contracts to represent overseas entities, such as companies, parties, politically connected individuals, and governments.

Sweeney, who was part of the Trump transition committee that interviewed potential administration officials, lobbied the Executive Office of the President separately on behalf of Kolomoyskiy and Russia’s state-controlled gas giant Gazprom’s planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline, according to Congressional filings.

In both cases, the effects of the lobbying seem unclear.

The Trump administration in December 2019 signed a bill into law imposing sanctions on vessels laying the Russian natural gas pipeline, delaying its completion for the foreseeable future.

As for Kolomoyskiy, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against the influential Ukrainian tycoon in August, accusing him of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars and using the stolen money to buy U.S. assets.

Another lobbying firm founded after the 2016 election is Avenue Strategies, which was registered by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and campaign senior adviser Barry Bennett in December 2016.

Soon, they were pitching their firm to governments in Eastern Europe, including Kosovo and Albania, the media outlet Politico reported in early 2017. Lewandowski left the company months later amid controversy surrounding his failure to register as a lobbyist.

Avenue Strategies did not win contracts with Albania and Kosovo -- those went to other Trump-connected start-ups -- but it was hired briefly in early 2018 to lobby the interests of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

'Wasn't Me'

Two Paths, a Delaware shell company, agreed to pay Avenue Strategies $65,000 a month for five months to lobby on behalf of Tymoshenko, who was about to start her unsuccessful campaign for the 2019 presidential election.

The lobbying registration document filed by Avenue Strategies with the U.S. government stated it may communicate with members of Congress and congressional staff, executive branch officials, the media, and other organizations on Tymoshenko’s behalf.

When news broke in late March about the lucrative contract, Tymoshenko immediately denied any connection to the lobbying effort. The contract was prematurely ended in May of that year.

Typical lobbying contracts last anywhere from a few months to a year, with the possibility of extension, and services usually cost from $20,000 a month to $75,000 but can run into six figures.

The Azeri American Institute hired Avenue Strategies in June 2019 to lobby the State Department for the purpose of “strengthening the...relationship” between the United States and Azerbaijan, according to lobby filings. The firm was paid $40,000 for work that lasted a few months.

The institute, which has no website, had been registered two months earlier in Ohio by Michael Flanagan, a former U.S. congressman from Illinois. Neither Avenue Strategies nor Flanagan responded to RFE/RL requests about who was financing the institute.

Zero To Millions

David Tamasi, the finance chair for the Trump Victory Fund, registered his lobby firm Chartwell Strategy Group at the end of 2017 and soon began representing the interests of Georgia and Kosovo.

Registration documents said his work for Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry and for Georgia could include communications with Congress and the executive branch -- the White House.

Firms lobbying politicians in Washington tend to come and go.
Firms lobbying politicians in Washington tend to come and go.

Meanwhile, Sonoran Policy Group, which had no federal lobbying revenue over the four years before Trump took office, has earned millions since then, representing about 20 foreign clients including the Embassy of Afghanistan, the Democratic Party of Albania, and Slobodan Tesic, a Serbian arms dealer who is under U.S. sanctions.

Sonoran, founded by 45-year-old Robert Stryk, a U.S. west-coast winemaker and former Republican aide, hired former Trump campaign aides shortly after the 2016 election.

A Washington lobbyist who represents clients from Eastern Europe described the rise of the firms with connections to Trump as an “abnormal” phenomenon and said he expects many to close up shop shortly after the president leaves office.

“They don't have other relationships -- they're persona non grata with Democrats, but they also don't have relations really with traditional Republicans,” the lobbyist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss competitors.

“Their relationships and their influence is really tied to Trump. And so some of those firms will evaporate. And I think for a lot of them, that was kind of the intention. They knew that they were going to feast during the Trump era and that it was going to be over after that,” he said.

Built To Last?

Washington has seen lobby firms with heavy dependence on one party or one connection fade in the past.

Podesta Group, which was ranked as the third-largest federal lobbying firm by revenue in 2016, closed shop a year later, felled by scandal and Trump’s surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton. Tony Podesta, the firm’s owner, is the brother of John Podesta, Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman.

Industry insiders say Ballard Partners, the most successful of the Trump-connected lobby firms, is one of those that may survive the president’s departure.

Founded by Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who served in 2016 as the Trump campaign’s finance chairman in the crucial state, the firm opened a Washington office only in February 2017, but has scooped up major business ever since.

Ballard has rocketed to seventh in federal lobbying revenue, replicating the dizzying success of the Podesta Group during the Obama years. The Embassy of Azerbaijan, a Podesta client for five years, hired Ballard in 2018 for a six-month stint.

Ballard has hired lobbyists with strong ties to the Democratic Party, making the firm resemble the traditional bipartisan firms that dominate Washington regardless of which party is in power, industry observers say.

On the Washington page of its website -- which features a photo of the domed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, not the similar-looking U.S. Capitol building -- the company seems to seek to quell any concerns clients may have about its future in a post-Trump world.

“While firms may come and go, Ballard Partners DC is built to last because we partner with our clients and strategize, plan and make an impact every step of the way,” it states.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.