“You see that window right there? The one right next to the big arch?” says Corey Lewandowski, pointing at the second floor of the White House two blocks away. “That’s gonna be Mr. Trump’s bedroom.”
Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, is standing in his corner office at Avenue Strategies, a lobbying firm he’s founded with Barry Bennett, the former campaign manager for Ben Carson who later worked for Trump. The geographic proximity to the White House is important, because it amplifies Lewandowski’s personal proximity to Trump—and that’s the basis for his new business. “We’re not here to compete with guys who are lobbying Capitol Hill,” Bennett says. “We’re here to lobby the administration.”
The arrival of a new president typically means a gold rush for Washington lobbyists as companies, foreign governments, and interest groups scramble for access and influence in the administration. Trump’s arrival promises to be different—at least according to Trump. Throughout the campaign, he lambasted the capital as a den of insider corruption and repeatedly vowed to “drain the swamp,” a phrase second only in the Trump lexicon to “make America great again.” On Nov. 16 his transition team announced that incoming officials would be required to sign five-year lobbying bans to prevent them from cashing in on their service once they leave his administration.
Trump’s well-advertised disdain for lobbying might seem to augur poorly for a firm seeking to peddle influence. Lewandowski and Bennett disagree. Not only do they reject the idea that their business conflicts with Trump’s swamp draining, but they insist they’ll actively abet him in the job. “I think what Donald Trump said was, Washington lobbyists have used their special access to the detriment of the American people,” Lewandowski says. “Our goal here is to help companies grow and expand, which falls directly in line with the goals of this administration.” Apparently Trump agrees. In a statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, the incoming president gave his seal of approval: “Corey is a terrific and talented guy, and I wish him well.”
Lewandowski’s fealty to Trump is the stuff of legend. After Trump fired him during a low point in the campaign, he became a paid political contributor to CNN. His on-air commentary was so stridently supportive of the Republican nominee—to whom he still spoke regularly—that it was hard to tell he wasn’t still working for Trump. In fact both Avenue Strategies principals were fired by Trump—Lewandowski in June, Bennett in July—yet they remain doggedly loyal to him. “I’m an unapologetic Trump supporter,” Lewandowski confirms.
To advertise their support, they’re taking the highly unusual step for a lobbying firm of creating a pro-Trump super PAC (the Great American Agenda PAC) that they’ll fund with their own money. The PAC’s purpose, Bennett says, will be to “build grass-roots energy and support for the Trump agenda, the cabinet nominees, and the Supreme Court pick.” While the PAC won’t be especially large (it will probably raise less than $1 million), Bennett says he hopes it will “build a list of a million people who we can count on raising their voices to Congress—we’ll help them every day with something they can do to push the agenda forward.”
Like so much else in the dawning Trump era, Avenue Strategies’ super PAC appears to be without precedent. “Lobbying firms sometimes set up faux grass-roots groups to push an issue,” says Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, “but I haven’t ever heard of a lobbying group setting up a super PAC, especially not one for a president.” Yet the benefit of such a move for a lobbying firm isn’t hard to discern: Trump appears to keep a running ledger of who is and isn’t loyally supporting him and could respond favorably to Avenue’s very public show of support.
Evidently, plenty of businesses believe he will. “So far our entire marketing operation has consisted of answering the phone,” Bennett says. “We’ve probably had 50 different entities reach out to us. I’ve been involved in a couple startups, and revenue is always an issue. This is not a startup where revenue is the issue. Bandwidth is the issue.”
Although Avenue Strategies only put out its shingle in late December, Lewandowski says the firm has already landed 11 clients, including Community Choice Financial, an Ohio payday lender; the incoming governor of Puerto Rico, which is trying to avoid falling into receivership; and Calfee, Halter & Griswold, a Cleveland law firm to whose clients Avenue will offer strategic advice. (Neither firm nor the governor’s press office in Puerto Rico responded to requests for comment.) More are likely to come aboard. The two founders had just returned from meetings in Paris and were about to fly to Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Morocco. In addition to their corporate work, they plan to remain involved in electoral politics, both in the U.S. and abroad. The pair are in discussions with candidates in Colombia, India, and Mexico.
As with earlier campaign hands who have turned to lobbying or “corporate strategy,” Avenue Strategies’ founders are selling their ability to help clients navigate the power structure of the incoming administration. In Trump’s case this is particularly difficult to discern, both because of the transition team’s organizational chaos and because many top appointees lack traditional Washington backgrounds. “This administration is relying so much on outsiders,” Lewandowski says, “that there are very few people in D.C. who know who those individuals are. That’s where we come in. I think my advantage to a company would be telling them how to navigate the government so that they can be successful. Companies are looking to understand the priorities of this administration across the board, at all the levels.”
In an effort to measure just how much business is at stake in the Trump administration, the government-analytics firm Govini recently produced a report, Trump’s Swamp: The Reprogramming Potential for Agencies and Contractors in 2017, that identified $406.9 billion in federal contracts set to expire this year. As Govini put it, the federal government represents “the largest market on the planet.”
No surprise, then, that a firm perceived as close to the man about to sit atop that enormous market would find itself in demand. But while this proximity could be valuable, Avenue Strategies differs from traditional lobbying firms in another key way: Its primary loyalty won’t be toward any client roster, but to the president. “We’ll never take a client that’s against the Trump agenda,” Bennett says. “You’re not going to have to pay us to tell you, ‘Mr. Trump is 100 percent opposed to what you do for a living, and we can’t help you.’ ”
While it’s not uncommon for lobbying firms to have an ideological affiliation, they tend to distinguish themselves by party, and often Republicans and Democrats go into business together to broaden a firm’s appeal. Avenue Strategies, by contrast, will be purely Trumpian—and proudly so. “There are lobbying shops in town that are Republican,” Bennett says. “But there aren’t too many who limit themselves to one person’s agenda.”
The downside to such an approach, of course, is that it could limit business. But with Republicans in control of Washington, and Trump—for now—in control of Republicans, that isn’t yet a problem. “Business,” Lewandowski says, “has been very, very good.”