As Donald Trump once again weighs a shake-up his senior staff, a rumored candidate for the White House’s top job threatens to further derail Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp.”
Veteran Republican lobbyist and Capitol Hill staffer David Urban is said to be in the running for a senior White House post, possibly replacing chief of staff Reince Priebus. Urban would bring to the West Wing not just a wealth of political experience but a roster of recent lobbying clients with business before the federal government and large sums riding on major administration policy decisions.
Urban’s hiring would underscore the degree to which Trump has not just failed to slow the revolving door between policymaking and Washington’s influence industry, but has, to a far greater degree than his predecessor, stacked his administration with the types of special interests that Trump pledged to purge from the halls of power.
Urban, formerly the top aide to the late Sen. Arlen Specter, was an early adviser to the Trump campaign and a key engineer of its upset victory in Pennsylvania. After the election, Urban was floated as a possible replacement for Priebus at the helm of the Republican National Committee. With a White House staff shakeup on the horizon, Urban is now in the running to take Priebus’s White House post, according to a Tuesday report from Axios.
If he makes the move, the White House will be forced to reckon with the potential ethics issues raised by Urban’s impressive roster of lobbying clients—nearly three dozen of them in 2017 alone, according to congressional disclosure forms—as it presses policy changes that dovetail with those clients’ interests.
Neither Urban nor White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded to a requests for comment on news that Trump is eyeing Urban for a senior post.
Urban’s name was first floated as a potential White House hire in late March. Since then, his firm, the American Continental Group, has signed seven new clients, according to congressional disclosure forms. All of them enlisted Urban personally.
Urban has worked to affect Medicare and Medicaid drug reimbursement rules on behalf of a pharmacy trade association as the White House and Congress hammer out details of a health care reform package. He represents major federal contractors such as General Dynamics, which signed a defense procurement deal with Saudi Arabia ahead of Trump’s visit to the country last week. In April, Urban signed a company that solicits foreign investment in exchange for U.S. visas—a program criticized over widespread fraud allegations, and employed to great effect by the family of Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Urban’s firm also has a murky relationship with Goldman Sachs, the investment banking giant whose alumni include Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. ACG inked a lobbying contract with Goldman on April 1, then canceled it the same day. Urban told Politico that the filing was made in error, but would not elaborate on the relationship.
Urban’s current clients also include a Mexican company seeking to minimize trade restrictions and preserve a landmark free trade agreement that Trump has pledged to dismantle. His move to the White House, if it happens, would occur right as the White House plots changes to that free trade agreement, and weighs a new trade regime for the U.S.’ southern neighbor.
Mexican automotive parts manufacturer Rossini International hired ACG on April 1, enlisting Urban and another of the firm’s lobbyists to work on border and taxation issues.
Rassini owns production facilities in Ohio and Michigan and it uses American materials in plants on both sides of the border, where the company manufactures automotive suspension and brake components. In a sense, the firm embodies criticism of Trump’s recent hostility toward foreign automotive importers: Many, such as the German automakers that the president singled out last week, have significant manufacturing operations in the United States.
But Rassini, like other Mexican and Canadian importers, stands to lose out if the president rolls back the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), though Rassini president Eugenio Madero told shareholders in November that he didn’t think Trump would pursue a wholesale U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, as he pledged on the campaign trail.
The company has also battled efforts, by way of another Washington lobbying firm, to impose U.S. taxes on foreign-sourced manufacturing inputs. Known as the border adjustment tax, the idea, floated by congressional Republicans, was dropped from a White House tax proposal less than three weeks after Rassini hired Urban’s firm.
If Urban joins the White House, he will do so as the administration weighs another major policy change with the potential to advance or inhibit the goals of one of Urban’s newest clients.
His lobbying work not only threatens to pit Urban against Trump campaign promises but also an ethics pledge imposed by a January executive order on all incoming administration officials barring them from working on issues that might affect a former lobbying client.
The pledge prohibits presidential appointees from participating in policy-making decisions affecting a “discreet and identifiable class of persons”—say, Mexican importers—with a direct interest in those decisions. Barring a waiver to the pledge’s “revolving door” provisions, Urban would likely be prohibited from working on significant segments of the administration’s trade agenda at a time when that agenda is front and center.
Urban’s extensive lobbying work means he’d be under similar restrictions with respect to a host of other policy areas. In 2017 alone, he has represented 35 different companies and trade associations, touching on issues including immigration, trade, retail, banking, defense, real estate, gambling, pharmaceuticals, information technology, health care, energy, education, telecommunications, construction, transportation, and even LGBT issues.
As Trump’s top staffer, Urban would oversee a White House agenda seeking changes in a number of those policy areas, potentially setting him up for a clash with the language of Trump’s ethics rules. Those rules are far softer than ones imposed by President Obama, whose version of the ethics pledge, which prohibited appointees from serving in agencies they had recently lobbied, would likely have barred Urban from serving in the White House at all.
To the extent that Trump’s ethics pledge would constrain Urban’s work, the White House could opt to waive the provisions of the pledge to allow him to more freely carry out his duties. Dozens of former lobbyists have secretly received waivers to the pledge, allowing them to work in the administration on the precise issues on which they lobbied, and to potentially advance the legislative and regulatory interests of their former clients.
The White House promised to release a list of ethics pledge waivers this week after the Office of Government Ethics pointedly demanded the information. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had not done so.