Flier by Delcan & Company. Photo illustration by Sam Kaplan for The New York Times. Prop stylist: Gozde Eker. Lewandowski: Al Drago/Getty Images.
There are about 10,000 registered lobbyists in Washington — roughly 20 for every member of Congress — and thousands more unregistered ones: consultants and ‘‘strategic advisers’’ who are paid to help shape government policy but do not disclose their clients. By whatever name, they are the people companies and countries hire to help roll back regulations, unstick bids, tweak legislation or get meetings. Lobbying is at once Washington’s most maligned, enduring and essential industry. Underpaid young politicos and retiring lawmakers depend on Beltway lobby shops — known as ‘‘K Street’’ after the city boulevard that once housed many of them — for the high-six-figure salaries that will loft them into Washington’s petite aristocracy. Congress needs K Street, too: After decades of cutting its own staff and research arms, much of Capitol Hill’s institutional memory and policy expertise now resides in the lobbying industry. But the private sector needs lobbyists the most. The modern federal government is so sprawling and complex that it practically demands a specialized class of middlemen and -women.
Over the decades, lobbying has evolved from a niche trade of fixers and gatekeepers to a sleek, vertically integrated, $3-billion-a-year industry. A good lobbyist doesn’t go into a meeting asking for legislation; she or he already has the bill drafted, a coalition of businesses and trade groups poised to support it, a policy brief to hand out to reporters and to the officials positioned at dozens of decision points throughout the bureaucracy and relationships with advertising and polling firms to manage the public rollout. Everyone has a lobbyist — or three, or 50 — and the lobbyists know everyone. K Street is majestic and immovable, veined through Washington like fat through a prime steak.
Like virtually every other candidate for president, Trump campaigned against this thicket of money and influence, positioning himself as an outsider who would ‘‘drain the swamp.’’ This pledge would soon prove more rhetorical than real, but it contained a grain of truth. Trump arrived in Washington with a relatively short baggage train of Beltway relationships and obligations. He didn’t read policy briefs; he barely had policies. His inner circle was a hodgepodge of Breitbart alumni, nominally Democratic financiers, Trump Organization employees on loan, the odd reality-show star and Republicans who would have been unemployable in almost any other administration. The smart money in Washington — K Street and K Street’s clients, the big corporations and trade associations — didn’t quite know what to expect. But mostly, they didn’t know whom to call.
‘‘Many companies want to understand: What are the president’s priorities?’’ Corey Lewandowski told me in February, a few weeks after the inauguration. ‘‘But there are so few people in Washington who have a relationship or an understanding of him.’’ Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager, was happy to tell you that he was one of the few exceptions.
Lewandowski’s journey from obscure New Hampshire political operative to celebrity power broker was emblematic of how Trump’s election scrambled Washington’s hierarchies. Much like Stryk, Lewandowski had spent years in the lower ranks of conservative politics and lobbying. Being hired as Trump’s campaign manager moved Lewandowski into the political big time, and being fired, midway through the race, did little to dislodge him. There were speaking gigs, a stint as a reliably pro-Trump pundit on CNN. At one point last year, Lewandowski even tried selling a book, tentatively titled ‘‘Let Trump Be Trump’’; Stryk, introduced to Lewandowski by a mutual friend, helped him shop the proposal. ‘‘Corey had a brand,’’ Stryk told me, and that brand was valuable. HarperCollins offered Lewandowski $1.2 million, an astounding figure for a campaign manager — though the deal evaporated when Lewandowski refused to show HarperCollins a copy of his nondisclosure agreement with Trump.
Through it all, Lewandowski remained close to Trump and spoke to him often. But after the election, the White House job Lewandowski hoped for never quite materialized. Now Lewandowski, too, was on K Street. He had joined up with another former Trump aide, Barry Bennett, to start a lobbying firm called Avenue Strategies.
Unlike other people on K Street, Lewandowski did not pretend to be an expert on the legislative calendar or the fine points of the Administrative Procedure Act. He was an expert on Trump. ‘‘There are just so few people in Washington who know the president,’’ Lewandowski told me in February. ‘‘It’s a comparative advantage.’’ He was not shy about playing up their friendship. He sometimes tweeted from the White House grounds. When journalists or other visitors came to his office, on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the White House, he would point out his window to where, he claimed, he could see the president’s bedroom.
His mind-meld with Trump was what made him valuable to clients, Lewandowski explained to me. ‘‘I think what I bring is a level of understanding of the president’s thought process,’’ he said, ‘‘only because I had the privilege of being next to him for so long.’’ He was doing as many as nine or 10 meetings a day: Chief executives, prominent Republicans, even other lobbying firms wanted his advice. He offered it freely, Lewandowski told me. He wanted to be helpful. ‘‘You know what a guy said to me the other day?’’ he said. ‘‘ ‘You’ve got a hot hand. Just remember, that hand’s not going to be hot forever.’ ’’
One good source of business was the president’s habit of calling chief executives to the White House for televised meetings. In January, when the chief executive of Whirlpool was summoned by Trump to discuss how to revive American jobs, the company asked Avenue Strategies to advise it. As one lobbyist who shared clients with Lewandowski put it to me, companies like Whirlpool needed to know the lay of the land inside the White House: How much sway did Wilbur Ross have? Was Steve Bannon for real? And what should the company do if Trump started dumping on it on Twitter?
Everyone had seen what happened to Lockheed Martin. Lockheed, the federal government’s single biggest contractor, is a powerful presence inside the Beltway. But through the winter, Trump had lashed out at the company over cost overruns on the F-35 fighter jet. The company’s shares dropped each time, taking Lockheed’s value down by billions of dollars. These were the kinds of problems that Lewandowski believed others on K Street couldn’t help with. ‘‘If you’re a corporate C.E.O. and the president has tweeted at you and your stock has dropped 4 percent, you say: ‘Why am I paying all these guys so much money?’ ’’ Lewandowski said. The old model of Washington influence wouldn’t work on Trump, he believed. ‘‘They don’t know him, and they don’t know any of his guys, and they don’t understand how he thinks.’’ Eventually Lockheed, too, turned to Avenue.
Over the course of a few conversations with the company’s Washington office, Bennett told me, they advised Lockheed on how Marillyn Hewson, its president and chief executive, should approach conversations: ‘‘Short, direct, honest answers,’’ as Bennett recounted it for me later. ‘‘Feel free to educate the president. In the end, it’s going to be transactional.’’ The next time Hewson met with Trump, a week before the inauguration, she came bearing gifts: a potential F-35 price cut and a promise to add jobs at a Texas plant.
The Twitter attacks ceased. By the end of February, Trump was praising Lockheed. ‘‘They’ve just announced eighteen hundred new jobs,’’ Trump told reporters after a meeting with Hewson and other manufacturing executives. ‘‘I have to say this, Marillyn, you’ve gotten a lot of credit because what you did was the right thing.’’
Lewandowski’s help did not come cheap. A typical boutique lobbying firm might charge $10,000 to $15,000 a month. A big lobbying or law firm, with teams of paralegals or assistants and high overhead, might charge twice that, with a three-month retainer. Avenue sometimes asked for as much as $50,000 a month — a top-shelf price on K Street — and Lewandowski on occasion tried to go higher. But there were plenty of takers: By midwinter, Avenue had ‘‘more than a dozen, less than 50’’ clients, Lewandowski told me at the time.
The demand was so great that would-be Trump-whisperers were popping up in Washington like toadstools after a rainstorm. The former Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, a ‘‘senior adviser’’ to the lobbying practice at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, was hawking a book titled ‘‘Understanding Trump.’’ Established K Street firms were grabbing any Trump people they could find: Jim Murphy, Trump’s former political director, joined the lobbying giant BakerHostetler, while another firm, Fidelis Government Relations, struck up a partnership with Bill Smith, Mike Pence’s former chief of staff. All told, close to 20 ex-aides of Trump, friends and hangers-on had made their way into Washington’s influence business.
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