As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump railed against lobbyists and special interests so often that it became a defining feature of his campaign. His “drain the swamp” and “I can’t be bought” refrains were two of his most popular, and he frequently attacked his opponents for being in hock to their donors.
In an interview with Newsmax in July 2015, to take just one example, Trump argued that he was the only candidate to clean up government because his opponents were “controlled by lobbyists, controlled by their donors, controlled by special interests.” Lobbyists, he often said or implied, were part of Washington’s “culture of corruption.”
Because the influence of lobbyists and special interests have long been a concern to many across the political spectrum, Trump’s comments were lauded by the media on both the right and the left.
That was then. Since Trump assumed the presidency, the White House has, in fact, been far more welcoming to lobbyists than the Obama administration ever was. In November 2017, not even a full year into Trump’s tenure, Reuters interviewed 16 lobbyists across nine industries. Those lobbyists said that Trump’s friendliness to them and their colleagues was a “stark departure” from the Obama administration, which tried to curb their influence—and in fact banned them from serving in the White House. The Trump administration meanwhile was “listening to them,” “returning their phone calls,” and, perhaps most disturbingly, the lobbyists expressed surprise “at the sheer number of wins in getting the Trump administration” to do what they wanted.
A report from Public Citizen earlier this year bolstered the Reuters examination. The non-partisan watchdog group discovered 64 instances of lobbying groups, foreign governments, corporate interests, and political candidates holding parties and/or meetings at Trump properties, notably the Trump International Hotel in Washington. As Robert Weissman, Public Citizen’s president, put it, “Business is booming at the Trump International Hotel… because corporations and foreign governments want to curry favor with the president.” Alan Ziebel, the report’s author, said, “Corporations and foreign governments know the best way to get on [Trump’s] good side is to open up their wallets at one of Trump’s many businesses.”
One of the corporations mentioned in the report was Geo Group, the private prison company. Geo Group, which recently moved its annual gathering to the Trump National Doral, is poised to benefit enormously from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ reversal of the Obama administration’s move to phase out private prisons. These companies, it just so happens, were some of Trump’s biggest campaign donors, maxing out donations to his campaign and his inaugural committee. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has called for five more private immigrant-detention facilities to be built along the southern border. Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy, which has included separating children from their parents with no coherent plan to reunite them, will help keep cells filled and these companies’ stock prices high.
When one thinks of Washington corruption, one commonly thinks of the revolving door between government and lobbying. (In 1974, 3 percent of members of Congress went on to lobbying positions after leaving office. Today it’s about 50 percent.) Recent reporting reveals that the door is now revolving at warp speed: The New York Times found, for example, that many of the administration officials and congressional lawmakers who worked on the Trump tax bill have already left government for lobbying positions—many going to work for businesses and organizations grappling with the new tax changes.
The Intercept revealed that some senior Trump law enforcement appointees had previously worked as contractors for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). One of these appointees was Thomas Kirsch, the Justice Department’s chief federal prosecutor in Indiana. Before his appointment, Kirsch provided legal services to Geo Group, which contracts with ICE in detaining undocumented immigrants.
Vice President Mike Pence’s office, meanwhile, has become a “gateway” for lobbyists seeking to influence the president. Citing data obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics, the Washington Post recently reported that about twice as many lobbyists contacted Pence’s office as had contacted Joe Biden or Dick Cheney during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. In some of these cases, the lobbyists donated to Pence-supported political causes after charging their clients millions for access to the vice president.
The great irony in all this, of course, is that a top reason cited by Trump and his supporters to vote against Hillary Clinton was that she was corrupt and owned by lobbyists. Clinton was a card-carrying member of the “establishment” whose career in public service was spent serving herself and special interests, her opponents hollered. “Lock her up, lock her up, lock her up!” went the chant at countless Trump rallies. Yet over four decades in politics, nine Benghazi investigations, various Whitewater, email, and private server investigations neither Clinton nor anyone on her staff or in her immediate circle was ever indicted.
It’s been a far different story with the Trump administration. In December 2017, Michael Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor, who led a “lock her up!” chant at the 2016 Republican National Convention, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Altogether, 191 criminal charges against 32 people, including Trump’s first campaign director, Paul Manafort, and former campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, have been brought in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. These charges have already resulted in five guilty pleas.
In May, not even a year and a half into the presidency that was supposed to “drain the swamp,” Democrats announced they’d be targeting the Trump administration’s “culture of corruption” in the 2018 midterms.