New Hampshire political operative Corey Lewandowski was an early campaign manager for President Trump. He was officially let go from the Trump campaign last June, but he's kept in close contact with the President. An article in Politico looks at a firm he's co-founded in Washington, D.C. called Washington East West Political Strategies.
Ken Vogel, author of the article, says Lewandowski appears to be using the firm to pitch international clients about the possibility of meetings with Trump or other members of the administration. That sounds a lot like lobbying, but Lewandowski has not registered as a lobbyist. Ken Vogel talked with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about how this is playing out in Washington.
Corey Lewandowski was officially let go from the Trump campaign last June, and he’s been a commentator on cable news, but he’s also kept in close contact with now-president Trump; you write in your article that a firm co-founded by Lewandowski appears to have been pitching international clients about the possibility of meetings with Trump or other members of the administration. That sounds a lot like lobbying- what does he say about that?
Well actually Corey refused to talk to us for our story, but the co-founder of his firm, a guy with whom he worked on the campaign by the name of Barry Bennet explains this by saying that Corey Lewandowski is in fact not lobbying, that even while folks who work at the firm are lobbying on behalf of some of the clients that Corey Lewandowski is working for, Corey himself is not participating in lobbying. Now lobbying is a legal definition that has to do with contacts with government officials, and if you’re lobbying for a foreign entity, which is what this pitch was for, you’d have to register to lobby even if you’re just making contacts on behalf of the foreign entity to really anyone in the United States. So what Barry Bennet says is that the firm has not signed any international clients, and as such it’s not required to lobby on behalf of those.
OK this sounds like we’re threading the needle a bit, but what does Washington East-West Political Strategies, this firm, actually do?
If we’re to believe Barry Bennet it’s not actually doing anything right now because it hasn’t signed any clients. But the idea behind it is that it is sort of a feeder LLC, a company that was created essentially to recruit and refer clients to Corey and Barry Bennet’s main lobbying firm which is called Avenue Strategies, so-named because it’s on Pennsylvania Avenue, very close to the White House- a not-so-subtle reference to the access that they advertise they have. East West Strategies is also advertising that type of access and really selling essentially Corey Lewandowski’s relationship with Donald Trump. This is troubling to ethics watchdogs because the purpose of East West Political Strategies is to sell that access to foreign entities, particularly foreign politicians who are seeking to curry favor in Washington, and that they say should trigger registration under what’s known as the foreign agents registration act.
Regardless of how this is classified, whether it is legally lobbying or not, how does this look from the President’s perspective? This is an administration that’s pledged to drain the swamp in D.C and bans lobbying by its members for a time after they leave; do you have a sense of their perspective on this?
Even when we were making calls on the run-up to the story we got the sense that they were very concerned about Corey flaunting his access and seeking to use it to benefit clients; at least the perception that this is an ethics scandal waiting to happen. Since our story has run, we understand- our sources inside the White House tell us the concern about Corey has escalated still further and there are talks about attempting to limit his access so that this perception does not take on a life of its own.
Who are some of these clients he is trying to sign?
Washington East West Political Strategies has gone to politicians in Albania, Latvia- those are the specific ones we’re aware of but we understand there are other pitches really all across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. Obviously this is an area of particular sensitivity for the Trump administration given the ongoing investigation into Trump and his team’s dealings with Russia during the campaign. A lot of these parties and politicians- it’s a little oversimplified to say they are pro-Russian- but certainly Russia is a giant looming force over all of these countries, and as such, these politicians to various degrees have interactions with Russia.
How much access does Corey Lewandowski actually have at this point to the President?
We understand that he has quite a bit of access; he brags to these perspective clients that he can get the President on his cell phone at virtually any time without going through gatekeepers. Our reporting backs that up. He’s also been in the Oval Office several times; we reported he had photos taken at the Oval Office with Trump and requested several copies of them. I haven’t checked his firm’s website but given the degree to which he brags about his access to the President I would not be surprised to see those photos turn up on the firm’s site. Now what he’s actually using that access for is another question. The folks we talked to in the White House say he isn’t using it to make pitches on behalf of clients, but that’s certainly the impression that he’s giving to clients- that he has this access and is marketing it to prospective clients.
This brings up the question of a turf war with other more established lobbying firms in D.C. and within the administration itself doesn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. This is yet another way Trump is sort of disrupting Washington. There are lobbyists and lobbying firms that have for decades dominated K Street and it’s because they have managed to- as administrations change or congressional balances of power change- they have managed to continue to hire people who have access at the upper levels. Trump came in and he was not a creature of Washington and he surrounded himself largely with people who are new to this game, and so some of these lobbying firms were scrambling to hire people who could legitimately claim or sometimes illegitimately claim Trump ties; Corey Lewandowski actually has them. That makes him a marketable commodity, and that makes some of these other firms leery of him. I’ll be perfectly frank here- that makes them more willing to try to leak to us what they find out about what Corey is doing which in some ways is more brazen then the way these lobbyists have traditionally marketed themselves; with a wink and a nod about their access, not overtly coming out and saying hey, I can get you a meeting with the President.
So there are signs that lobbying is changing maybe in unintended ways with Trump?
It’s not so much draining the swamp as really empowering new sort of hybrid swamp creatures that are not the old gators that have dominated the swamp for decades.