Image via Shutterstock Donald Trump
Image via Shutterstock

“The swamp is alive and well in Washington, D.C.”

A week into his presidency, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to “drain the swamp.” Now, a watchdog group is calling his bluff.

Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, released a report Monday identifying 40 lobbyists with ties to the president who helped secure more than $10 billion in federal coronavirus aid for their clients. 

Trump’s promise to prevent Washington’s influence in politics was a hit on the campaign trail, but a spike in lobbying spending—to the tune of $903 million in the first quarter of 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—proves it was just hype. Powerful companies, trade groups, and other clients rushed to influence the government’s response to COVID-19, particularly the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill—and it worked. 

According to Monday’s report, $6.3 billion was distributed in grants, $4.2 billion in loans, and $67 million worth of support in the form of corporate bond purchases by the Federal Reserve. Public Citizen described these numbers as “likely a gross undercount due to lagging disclosure by the Trump administration.”   

“The swamp is alive and well in Washington, D.C.,” Mike Tanglis, one of the report’s authors, told the Associated Press. “These (lobbying) booms that these people are having, you can really attribute them to their connection to Trump.” 

Take Brian Ballard, for example. Ballard was a member of Trump’s presidential transition team and currently serves as the finance chair for the Republican National Committee. According to the report, Ballard was hired by Laundrylux, a supplier of commercial laundry machines, after the Department of Homeland Security issued guidelines that didn’t include laundromats as essential businesses that could stay open during lockdown. One week after his Ballard Partners registered to lobby for LaundryLux, the administration issued new guidelines that included “workers in laundromats, laundry services, and dry cleaners” as essential. 

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“Ballard Partners, which had not lobbied in Washington until Trump’s election, now has the most clients of all federal lobbying firms,” the report states.

The report also points out that several lobbyists who previously worked in the Trump administration appear to have violated the president’s 2017 executive order, which prohibits former administration officials from lobbying an agency or office where they were formerly employed. It also prohibits former political appointees from lobbying the administration. 

Some of those alleged offenders include:

  • Jordan Stoick, the vice president of government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers, and former senior adviser in the Treasury Department. He’s lobbied both houses of Congress plus at least five executive branch agencies, including Treasury, on coronavirus-related issues.
  • Geoffrey Burr, now part of the firm Brownstein Hyatt after serving as chief of staff to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. The firm’s lobbying disclosure for the first quarter of 2020 includes Burr on a list of lobbyists who contacted the White House and Congress on coronavirus-related matters on behalf of McDonald’s. The report also points out that lobbyists with connections to Trump at Brownstein Hyatt have represented at least 45 clients on COVID issues.
  • Emily Felder, also a member of Brownstein Hyatt. She worked in the legislative office for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Felder is listed on a disclosure from the first quarter of 2020 that shows she was part of a team that lobbied Congress and the White House.

The unprecedented public health crisis appears to have opened the door to a number of opportunities where people in power were able to benefit off conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency. In June, Politico reported that at least four members of Congress benefited from or had ties to beneficiaries of the $659 billion Paycheck Protection Program. A month earlier, Sens. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Richard Burr of North Carolina were accused of selling off stocks after receiving early information of the severity of the coronavirus outbreak.

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As for the lobbying industry, Public Citizen is calling for an investigation into conflicts of interests, and said in its report that “lobbying disclosure forms are not sufficiently precise” to determine where violations have been committed. 

“The Trump administration should do everything in its power to enhance public disclosure of the details of COVID-related federal spending,” the report’s authors conclude. “Future administrations should work with Congress to codify tighter restrictions on former officials engaging in federal lobbying activities.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.