WASHINGTON - On a Friday evening in late September, President Donald Trump huddled with high-dollar donors, lobbyists and corporate executives here in a private room at the hotel he owns, where attendees took turns pitching the president on their pet issues.
Trump was there to raise big money for his reelection effort. The price of admission: as much as $100,000 per person to get in the door.
For his guests, it was a chance to make the most of what has emerged as a signature feature of Trump’s Washington: the ability of wealthy donors to directly lobby the president.
One talked to him about solar panels; another about business loans, according to two people who participated and, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions. At least one guest was told by Trump to follow up with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, conveniently seated nearby.
One attendee’s plea on behalf of an obscure railway project in Alaska in need of federal approval appeared to get immediate results.
Just after midnight, mere hours after the campaign fundraiser, Trump tweeted that it was his “honor to inform you that I will be issuing a Presidential Permit for the A2A Cross-Border rail.”
“Congratulations to the people of Alaska & Canada!” he added, noting that the state’s congressional delegation was supportive of the move. The presidential permit was officially issued three days later.
Trump’s rapid action after the Sept. 25 fundraiser - one of dozens of high-dollar donor events he has headlined while in office - emblematizes how much he has abandoned his 2016 pledge to “DRAIN THE SWAMP.”
In the closing weeks of that election, Trump led cheering supporters in chants of that slogan, promising that he would completely disrupt the culture of Washington. He warned of the power of lobbyists and political donors who he said effectively bought off elected officials. He told voters he was uniquely prepared to take on the issue, because he knew personally as a contributor how the system worked.
“When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2015.
But during his four years in office, Trump has taken few steps to clean up Washington. He has instead presided over a norm-shattering expansion of private interests in government.
The government has had to spend money at Trump’s private hotels as his family has traveled around the globe. Trump sidestepped rules that had been designed to prevent nepotism, allowing his son-in-law to serve in a top government role. He has touted companies run by supporters and allies who received government contracts. His administration has allowed former lobbyists to serve in jobs in which they have oversight of policies that affect their former employers.
Among the five pledges Trump made to “drain the swamp” and curtail the influence of lobbyists in a major campaign speech in October 2016, a Washington Post review found that he sought to address only two, through an executive order in January 2017 - which contained a major loophole.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, had initially expressed cautious optimism about Trump’s ethics pledge in 2017. He now says the president has worsened Washington’s profiteering culture in nearly every way.
“The whole administration has taken Trump’s tone - self-dealing, self-enriching, enriching your friends and families - that’s smart, if you listen to Trump,” he said.
Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said in a statement that the president has followed through on his promises, casting “the swamp” as those who have opposed Trump’s agenda.
“President Trump has fought tirelessly in his effort to make Washington accountable to the American people - that can be seen not only in his government ethics reforms, but also in his push to drain the swamp of its tired, failed, recycled ideas, such as working to end endless wars, tearing up disastrous trade deals that shipped our jobs overseas, rolling back burdensome regulations and expediting permit approvals, and putting an end to uncontrolled immigration,” he said. “And that is why the Swamp has fought so hard against this President every step of the way.”
Rich contributors have long had access to elected officials in Washington, but as president, Trump has dropped any pretense that they should not be afforded special treatment.
Donors and others seeking access appear routinely at his private clubs in Florida and New Jersey, where they have buttonholed the president on the patio or golf course.
The ability of outside favor-seekers to influence Trump has at times worried administration officials. A group of Mar-a-Lago members sought to shape the direction of the Department of Veterans Affairs, as the former VA secretary detailed in a book. Donors attending fundraisers at his Bedminster club weighed in on the GOP tax bill, according to people familiar with internal discussions.
Meanwhile, lobbying firms that can claim access to Trump’s inner circle have thrived.
Barry Bennett, a 2016 Trump campaign adviser and lobbyist for foreign interests, said business for him was booming before the coronavirus pandemic.
The president’s attacks on the swamp have been effective in one way, he said: “To the extent that Washington is less popular, and people are more angry at their government, that’s been the effect of the Trump presidency.”
When Trump launched his presidential bid, he distinguished himself from rivals for the Republican nomination by saying he would fund his own campaign, eschewing the support of donors who he said corrupted the political system by seeking favors in exchange for their contributions. The argument proved powerful with voters.
“I will say this - [the] people [who] control special interests, lobbyists, donors, they make large contributions to politicians and they have total control over those politicians,” he said at a Republican primary debate in March 2016. “And frankly, I know the system better than anybody else and I’m the only one up here that’s going to be able to fix that system, because that system is wrong.”
He likewise termed super PACs, which can accept unlimited amounts of money, a “disaster.” “They’re a scam,” he said at a debate in October 2015. “They cause dishonesty.”
Trump unveiled the phrase “drain the swamp” in a speech in Green Bay, Wis., in October 2016, wielding it as a weapon against Democrat Hillary Clinton, who was benefiting from a network of wealthy donors that she and former President Bill Clinton had cultivated over four decades.
“There were a lot of Democrats that Trump may not have beaten with that message,” said Charles Black Jr., who has worked as a Republican lobbyist and consultant for nearly five decades. “The message worked - but it worked especially because of who she was.”
It was quickly a hit with Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, entering the lexicon of call-and-response cries at his signature rallies. It remains one of the most popular chants and resonant messages, campaign aides say.
“We’re going to go to Washington. We’re going to drain the swamp,” Trump said at a North Carolina rally in 2016. As the crowd picked up the chant - “Drain the swamp! Drain the swamp!” - Trump explained that when he first heard the phrase, he hated it. He thought it was “hokey.” But then he said he noticed how crowds responded.
“The place went crazy,” he said, adding: “Now I love the expression. I think it was genius.”
By then, Trump’s original promises to use his own wealth to power his campaign had crumbled.
He ultimately reported spending $66 million of his own money on his winning campaign, only a small portion of the more than $564 million he raised by the end of 2016. By July 2016, he began appearing at fundraisers for a super PAC supporting his election.
Trump made no pretense of self-funding his 2020 campaign. Instead, he spent four years attending closed-door events for his wealthiest supporters, raising millions of dollars for his campaign and the America First super PAC.
Some of the country’s most powerful individuals have lent their properties for Trump’s gilded fundraising events, from the California hillside mega-mansion of Oracle founder Larry Ellison to the Hamptons beachfront palace of hedge fund manager John Paulson. The entry fee for some: as high as $580,600 a person, with much of the money flowing to the Republican National Committee, which as a party committee can accept large contributions.
Donors have gotten access not just to Trump at these events, but also to a range of senior Cabinet officials such as Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Trump advisers such as Peter Navarro, Kellyanne Conway, Bill Stepien and Corey Lewandowski, invitations show.
While his predecessors typically kept their remarks at donor events short and scripted, Trump speaks loosely and profanely - even discussing sensitive military operations and vulgarly describing political foes.
“It’s like a rally speech, but with a lot more swearing,” one regular attendee said.
At a campaign fundraiser held Thursday at the JW Marriott in Nashville, one donor made a point of praising Trump for his work draining Washington’s swamp, according to an attendee.
“I had no idea how deep it was. I had no idea how mean it was,” Trump responded, speaking to a crowd of supporters who had paid as much as $250,000 to be in the room.
Among those in attendance at the Sept. 25 event at Trump’s hotel in Washington was Mead Treadwell, a former lieutenant governor of Alaska and vice chair of Alaska-Alberta Railway Development Corp., the company attempting to build a 1,600-mile railway to link a port in Anchorage to Canada. It requires federal approval because it would cross the border.
The project is still in its early phases, but company officials have said having the permit in hand will be key to raising additional money and moving forward.
Treadwell said he spoke to Trump at the event about the project’s potential benefits to Alaska. He said the company had lobbied for the White House to take over the approval process from the State Department, where it had previously resided. The White House agreed in February and the issue was fully briefed for White House lawyers five or six months ago, he said. Then the company waited.
Treadwell attended as a guest of the fiancee of the railway company’s chairman, he said. He said his comments were brief, thanking Trump for considering the project - and the White House for taking it over.
Treadwell noted that Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation back the project and had been lobbying the White House for the approval, and that he believed their input was what probably spurred the president.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also spoke to Trump on the day of the fundraiser, presenting a one-page memo explaining the proposal and telling the president that the rest of the delegation supported it, according to a person with knowledge of their conversation. Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, Treadwell said, the tweet was surprising.
“I can’t tell you how or why the White House made the decision when they did,” he said. “All I can say is, we’ve had a long series of consultations on this.”
He added: “I don’t think there was any quid pro quo.”
A White House official said the project has state support, the permit had already gone through a review process and its approval was unrelated to the fundraiser.
The ability of high-dollar donors to shape Trump’s views was put into sharp relief earlier this year, when onetime Trump supporter Lev Parnas released recordings of events.
In the recordings, one donor could be heard proposing the president hold a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, at a South Korean golf course he owned. Another donor, who owns a Canadian steel company, pushed Trump to limit steel imports to the United States.
Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman, who were working with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, urged the president to recall the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, whom they viewed as unfriendly to interests of a new natural gas company they had formed.
“Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow,” Trump could be heard immediately instructing an aide after the two made the request.
Parnas, now a sharp critic of Trump, has been charged with campaign finance violations and defrauding investors in his company. He has denied wrongdoing. Parnas said it was widely understood by donors that they were paying for face time with Trump.
“Everyone knew that about Trump - all it took was that one minute, if he liked it,” he said. “It was OK to spend a million dollars on a dinner. Because that dinner could make your whole life.”
It was eight days after Trump’s inauguration, and he was sitting in the Oval Office surrounded by top aides such as then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, issuing one of his first executive orders. The presidential directive addressed one of his major “drain the swamp” planks: a promise to curb lobbyists.
“Most of the people standing behind me will not be able to go to work” after they leave government, Trump said.
The order addressed one of his campaign promises when it came to lobbying: It required senior executive branch officials to sign a pledge that they will never in their lifetime work as registered foreign lobbyists.
But when it came to lobbying overall, the order had a loophole: It prohibited former executive branch appointees only from lobbying the agencies where they had served, not the government overall.
Overall, Trump has largely failed to fulfill the pledges he made in his Green Bay “drain the swamp” speech. He had promised he would push Congress to pass a five-year lobbying ban into law so it could not be lifted by a future president. But he never proposed such legislation. Nor did he ask Congress to impose a similar five-year lobbying ban on its members, as he had promised he would in 2016.
In addition, he never tried to seek to “close all the loopholes” used by former government officials who get around registering as lobbyists by calling themselves “consultants” and “advisers.” And he never acted on his pledge to stop foreign lobbyists from campaign fundraising - and in fact, has benefited from their financial support.
As his promises to curtail lobbying have faded, Trump allies who can offer insight to private interests have flourished.
“People who know how Washington and the administration works, those people are always going to be valuable,” Bennett said.
Priebus, for example, has been paid up to six figures for private speeches to describe Trump’s decision-making process, according to people with knowledge of the speeches. Priebus declined to comment.
Other Trump allies have worked as traditional lobbyists.
Take David Urban, a Trump campaign adviser in 2016 and 2020, who has counseled the president on senior personnel matters and politics, often in weekend phone calls, and has regularly flown on Air Force One.
His lobbying clientele in the Trump era has included a range of companies with interests before the government, including the weapons giant Raytheon, T-Mobile and ByteDance, the parent company of mobile app TikTok, which was targeted by the Trump administration.
Urban did not respond to requests for comment. He recently went to work for ByteDance full time.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, a longtime adviser who served as Trump’s coach before this fall’s presidential debates, has earned nearly $200,000 lobbying for the Puerto Rican power authority this year, as well as for health systems that were seeking coronavirus-related government funding and a shipping conglomerate, according to lobbying records.
Trump has long railed against Puerto Rico but decided earlier this year to grant the country nearly $13 billion in aid.
In an interview, Christie said he had personally lobbied the president only once - on behalf of a legal client, who was given a pardon last year. He said he had never lobbied the president for business clients but deals with White House and agency officials.
Christie said he had “no idea” if his advocacy on Puerto Rico led Trump to agree and grant the country aid this fall, partially for the grid: “He has never told me that directly.”
Perhaps one of the most successful figures in the Trump lobbying era has been Brian Ballard, who got his start with Trump lobbying for his company in Florida.
In the past four years, he has lobbied the federal government on behalf of dozens of clients, including private prison company Geo Group, which in 2017 moved its annual leadership conference to a Trump-owned property, as well as Uber and Amazon, public records show.
According to tallies by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Ballard’s firm has earned $58.8 million in lobbying fees since 2017.
Ballard has made so much money that Trump aides have complained he has too much access to the president and his administration, according to three officials.
In a statement, Ballard said he “has thrived by building an exceptionally talented and bipartisan team that has followed the same tradition of effective, ethical representation that we have long-established in Florida.”
After 20 years in Florida, he said, he had opened an office in Washington “at the direct request of many of our Florida clients.” The expansion of his lobbying business came, he wrote, in 2017 - the same year Trump took office.
Among those who have sought his help are a number of foreign governments, including Albania, Azerbaijan, the Dominican Republic, Kosovo, the Maldives, Mali, Turkey, Qatar and Zimbabwe, records show.
Despite his ties to foreign countries, he has played a lead role in the president’s fundraising operation as finance vice chairman of the Republican National Committee, helping raise millions for Trump’s reelection. Two of his employees, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Susie Wiles, have worked for the president’s political operation. Bondi has gone from working as a Ballard employee to a White House lawyer, back to a Ballard employee and campaign adviser.
Ballard’s fundraising efforts are exactly the kind of activities that Trump promised to stamp out in 2016.
In his Green Bay speech, Trump claimed of Clinton that “her international donors control her every move.”
“I am going to ask Congress to pass a campaign-finance reform that prevents registered foreign lobbyists from raising money in American elections,” he said at the time.
But once in office, Trump never proposed to Congress any sort of campaign finance overhaul - much less legislation that would bar foreign lobbyists from political fundraising.
Another prominent fundraiser for Trump’s reelection campaign, David Tamasi, has lobbied for the nation of Georgia and Kosovo’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Tamasi declined to comment.
Meanwhile, some of the president’s top allies have been ensnared in investigations related to foreign lobbying.
Elliot Broidy who served as deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2017, pleaded guilty Tuesday to acting as an unregistered foreign lobbyist for Malaysian and Chinese government interests.
Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort admitted to federal prosecutors that he failed to register as a lobbyist for a Ukrainian political party. So did Trump’s deputy campaign manager Rick Gates.
A senior White House official said that with his 2017 executive order, Trump accomplished all that is within his authority to curb lobbying, including instituting a five-year ban for former officials lobbying their former agencies and expanding the definition of lobbying.
However, government watchdog groups said the minimal lobbying restrictions that Trump put in place have done little to stop Washington’s revolving door culture.
Trump’s order prohibited appointees who had been lobbyists within two years before their appointment from participating in business related to topics of interest to their former clients for two years.
But a report compiled by Public Citizen in March 2018 - only 14 months into the administration - found that 133 former lobbyists had been appointed to the Trump administration. They included 60 who had lobbied within two years of joining government and 35 of those former lobbyists were appointed to oversee the specific topics about which they had previously lobbied.
Last year, ProPublica found that at least 33 former Trump administration officials had found ways to essentially lobby after leaving government, despite the supposed five-year ban on such activities. Some styled themselves consultants and advisers - the kind of end run around the rules that Trump once railed against.
“It’s a meaningless piece of paper that was just put out to live up to the ‘drain the swamp’ promise,” Holman said of the executive order. “No one takes it seriously.”
Black, the veteran Washington lobbyist, said some agencies initially held lobbyists at arm’s length - agreeing to speak by phone and email, but not accepting meetings, for example.
But he said Trump was such an unknown quantity in Washington that it is not surprising that lobbyists who had relationships with him and top aides would benefit.
As for purging the city of special interest influence, he said: “That’s probably a century-long project, if you wanted to take it on.”
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.