Trump world lobbyists find life just isn’t the same under Joe

When Donald Trump took office in 2017, the handful of Washington lobbyists who could boast ties to him were inundated with calls from potential clients.

Six months into the Biden administration, several Trump-connected firms together are down millions of dollars in fees compared to a year earlier; one prominent firm with Trumpworld ties has collapsed, and another has withdrawn from Washington entirely.

“It’s definitely been quiet,” said Brad Gerstman, whose firm, Gotham Government Relations & Communications, once represented Trump in New York and helped orchestrate Trump’s 2015 campaign announcement before opening a Washington office after he won.

The lobbying firm ACG Advocacy saw its business skyrocket after one of its partners, David Urban, helped Trump carry Pennsylvania in the 2016 election. But its lobbying business diminished after Urban left a couple of months before Trump lost to become an executive vice president at ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok.

ACG brought in $2.5 million in lobbying revenue in the second quarter of this year, down from $4.4 million in the second quarter of 2020, according to a POLITICO analysis of its disclosure filings — a drop of 43 percent.

Shawn Smeallie, ACG’s founder, said the firm knew that its swollen revenues during the Trump administration weren’t sustainable.

“David Urban and I used to call it a sugar high,” Smeallie said in an interview.

ACG’s revenues are still higher than they were before Trump was elected, he pointed out, and the firm has hung onto many of Urban’s clients, including Comcast, Walgreens and 7-Eleven. The firm is bipartisan and boasts “one of the top Schumer people in the city,” as Smeallie put it, referring to Molly Allen, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Nevertheless, the dip in revenues at ACG and other firms, as revealed in newly filed disclosures, reflects how thoroughly Trump’s presidency disrupted the lobbying and consulting firms that make up the bedrock of D.C.

K Street always experiences shake ups when power changes hands. But the dearth of lobbyists with connections to Trump when he assumed office in 2017 drew a clutch of operatives with ties to him to Washington. While Urban is a longtime Washington lobbyist, others had limited D.C. experience, and their success in the capital was always tied to Trump’s. Many of them are sticking around now that the former president is out of power, but a Democratic-run D.C. has presented some, well, complications.

The Trump administration “was an aberration because it was so much chaos out of the gate,” as Smeallie put it. “Chaos in this industry tends to mean a lot more work, because people are nervous.”

Still, some lobbyists who arrived in Washington early in the Trump era are staying, even if their revenues have taken a hit.

Jeff Miller, a Republican lobbyist who is close to former energy secretary Rick Perry, set up a D.C. lobbying shop after Trump won and signed prominent clients such as Dow Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Miller Strategies’ lobbying revenues have fallen by almost half in the past year; the firm brought in $1.9 million in the second quarter of 2021 compared with $3.4 million in the second quarter of 2020. Still, it is on pace to bring in more money this year than it did in either of the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Dow Chemical and PhRMA both remain clients.

Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who was a top fundraiser for Trump’s campaigns and who opened a Washington office after Trump won, has experienced a similar trend.

Ballard built his firm into one of the largest in Washington. But its lobbying revenues fell by about 26 percent to $4.8 million in the second quarter, compared with $6.5 million in the second quarter of last year. Still, many of Ballard’s clients decided to stick with him even though Trump is no longer in office.

“We talked to them about that, and they were very honest with us,” said Keith Wilkins, the city administrator for the City of Pensacola, Fla., which is a Ballard client. The firm assured him they were working to develop “relationships with some of the leading Democrats in the state of Florida,” he said.

With Trump gone, Ballard Partners has worked to adapt to President Joe Biden’s Washington. It hired more Democratic lobbyists this year and saw its revenue grow slightly from the first quarter to second quarter of 2021.

“We’re institutionalizing our business rather than getting the one-time quick hit,” Ballard said.

Other lobbying firms that thrived during Trump’s presidency haven’t fared as well.

Avenue Strategies, the lobbying firm started by Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennett in late 2016, closed up shop after Trump lost. (Lewandowski cut ties with the firm years earlier.) Bennett subsequently started a new firm, but he’s registered to lobby for only a single client: America’s Power, a coal industry trade group.

And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s lobbying firm, Christie 55 Solutions, which earned more than $1.1 million last year lobbying the Trump administration, stopped lobbying for all eight of its clients earlier this year.

Bennett and Christie didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Not all lobbying firms with ties to Trump have suffered in Biden’s Washington.

David Tamasi, a longtime Washington lobbyist who raised money for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, told POLITICO right before the Nov. 3 election that he expected his lobbying firm’s business to decline 5 to 10 percent if Trump lost. But he said on Wednesday that he was wrong: business hasn’t declined at all.

While his lobbying firm, Chartwell Strategy Group, brought in $435,000 in lobbying fees during the second quarter of this year — down from $550,000 in the second quarter of 2020 — the firm’s revenue in the first half of this year is higher than it was in the first half of 2020. The firm is bipartisan, which has helped insulate it from the transition to a Democratic White House and Congress.

“Last year was our best year, and we’re on track this year for an even better year,” Tamasi said in an interview.

The lobbying firm Michael Best Strategies, meanwhile, where Trump’s former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, is chairman, has seen its lobbying earnings balloon over the past year as it has hired former Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and has given former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) a bigger role. Michael Best Strategies brought in nearly $2 million in lobbying revenue in the second quarter of 2021, up from $1.1 million in the second quarter of last year.

“Michael Best is one of the fastest growing and smartest shops in DC and we couldn’t be happier with our progress,” Priebus wrote in an email to POLITICO.

Michael Best Strategies’ rising fortunes aren’t necessarily surprising. Many K Street firms have seen their revenues boom as Congress has authorized trillions in new spending to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, and as Biden has pushed for trillions more.

At the same time, it’s potentially risky for firms to hire lobbyists with ties to Trump at a time when Democrats control Congress and the White House, and Congress is setting up a commission to investigate the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters in January. The payoff, instead, could come years down the road if Republicans return to power.

“The risk is somewhat obvious,” said one lobbyist whose firm has discussed bringing on a lobbyist with ties to Trump to bolster its lobbying of Trump allies in Congress. “The rewards are maybe in 2023.”

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