Four years ago to the day, President Donald Trump pledged to impose a blanket ban on political fundraising by registered foreign lobbyists. Now some of those lobbyists are helping to finance his re-election bid.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump warned about the corrupting influence of foreign governments and their willingness to use higher influence-peddlers to push their causes. His warnings were aimed at his then-Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. And he pointed to one of the emails released by WikiLeaks after Russian hackers breached a top Clinton aide’s email account, which he insisted “shows top officials in the Clinton campaign scheming to take massive sums of money from foreign lobbyists.”
“This is money bundled by people registered as lobbyists on behalf of foreign governments,” Trump complained.
Trump made those comments in a speech unveiling an ethics reform plan that he pledged to implement in his first 100 days in office. Among its proposals was “a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.”
Not only did no such ban ever materialize in any legal or legislative form, but Trump is now running for re-election with huge financial assistance from the same sorts of foreign lobbyists whose influence he decried four years ago. And he’s doing so even as his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, refunds even small individual donations from registered foreign lobbyists.
Brian Ballard is among the most influential lobbyists in Donald Trump’s Washington. His eponymous firm, Ballard Partners, has scores of domestic lobbying clients. But it also boasts a robust foreign practice; Ballard himself is registered to lobby on behalf of the governments of Qatar, Zimbabwe, Kosovo, and the Dominican Republic.
In addition to his lobbying practice, Ballard is a prolific fundraiser for the Trump political operation. According to Federal Election Commission filings, he has “bundled” nearly $1.7 million for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee benefitting the campaign, the Republican National Committee, and dozens of state parties.
Bundling is the practice of raising money and combining donations from other individuals and submitting them as a lump sum to the campaign or political committee to which they’re donating. It’s a popular way of currying favor with political candidates and parties.
According to FEC filings, 11 bundlers have raised more than $16 million for Trump Victory since last year. In addition to Ballard, there is David Tamasi, a managing director at the Chartwell Strategy Group, who has bundled more than $150,000 for Trump Victory. Like Ballard, he lobbies for the government of Kosovo, in addition to the government of Georgia, according to Foreign Agent Registration Act records.
The about-face from Trump underscores the gaping chasm between his 2016 campaign trail rhetoric—in particular his frequent pledges to “drain the swamp” in D.C.—and his subsequent embrace of the very sorts of swampy Washington practices that he defined himself in opposition to.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Bryan Lanza, a senior comms aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign who now lobbies for the governments of Libya, Zimbabwe, and Haiti, among others, brushed off the apparent disconnect.
“I think his position over time got a little bit more mature,” Lanza said of Trump’s pledge on the 2016 campaign trail. “At the end of the day this is all optics, to say they’re doing something with the least impact possible,” Lanza said of the Biden campaign’s decision to refund money from FARA-registered lobbyists. “If anybody wants real teeth to this, you ban political parties, you ban super PACs—anything short of that is just lip service.”
“You know who invented the first super PAC?” Lanza added. “Thomas Jefferson, with French money—he took French money to influence elections in the U.S.”
Ethics experts say Trump’s 2016 pledge to ban foreign agent fundraising probably would not have been a boon for efforts to restrict foreign influence in U.S. elections. But it might have at least made a dent in rent-seeking by paid representatives of foreign governments, the very practice that so repulsed Trump four years ago.
The proposal “was a half-measure that would do relatively little to address foreign election interference,” wrote the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit ethics group, in a report last month on Trump’s promised reform measures. “However, because foreign lobbyists often use campaign contributions and fundraising to grease the wheels for their foreign clients, such a ban could undermine the swampy nature of foreign lobbying.”
At the end of the day, CLC concluded, “addressing foreign election meddling requires more than a fundraising ban.”
To the extent it would root out the sort of insider-ism that Trump railed against in 2016, though, the president’s team appears to have taken the precise opposite tack. Tamasi and Ballard have both held finance leadership positions at Trump Victory by dint of their prowess as political fundraisers. Just last month, Trump also tapped Tamasi for a position on a federal advisory board overseeing the preservation of historical artifacts abroad.
Ballard served in top spots on Trump’s inaugural committee and transition team, though he hasn’t actually been appointed to an administration position. But one of his employees, Ballard Partners lobbyist and former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, managed to lobby for the government of Qatar, leave to serve as a top communications aide in the White House during this year’s impeachment proceedings, then return to her post as a paid advocate for Doha.
While she’s not a campaign bundler, Bondi is helping to raise money for the president’s re-election. Last month, she joined Ivanka Trump on stage at a Florida fundraiser that reportedly brought in $3 million for the president’s re-election effort.