Trump White House could be lobbying bonanza

Story highlights

  • Trump's policies are so far skeletal, leaving an opening to shape their translation into legislation
  • The Trump inner circle has less connections to lobbyists than many White House staffs in the past

Washington (CNN)Washington lobbyists see a big opportunity to shape the incoming Trump administration -- if they can find a way in.

President-elect Donald Trump's transition period has left the capital's lobbying class under the firm impression that the new White House will be particularly open to influence from the outside.
Trump had an unusually thin policy operation during his campaign, and has been working furiously to build out his transition team since the election, stocking it with experts and insiders from around DC. His policy positions throughout the campaign were mostly skeletal and prone to shifts, providing an opening for lobbyists and industries to have a say in the development of concrete proposals.
    "It's a blank slate, and that's definitely an opportunity you don't see very often," said one lobbyist who met with transition staff early in the process and requested anonymity to preserve relationships.
    But there are big challenges. Many lobbying shops staffed up with Democrats or those who signed anti-Trump letters on the assumption that Trump would lose the election. And when Vice President-elect Mike Pence took over as the chairman of the transition, he required lobbyists to either leave or terminate their clients on the topic they were working on.

    Good business

    Still, the Trump administration could mean good business for K Street, the symbolic home of Washington's top lobbying shops. Uncertainty over Trump's policies and staff mean companies will look for guidance and influence. That's a recipe for financial success if they can sell themselves as well positioned.
    Already, two former members of Trump's closest team have created a consulting firm. Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former senior adviser Barry Bennett, both of whom found themselves outside of the inner circle amid a campaign shake-up early summer, announced Wednesday that they would open a firm with an office a block from the White House to help clients "navigate our government," according to their company website.
    The President-elect has released the broad strokes of his first 100 day agenda and has repeatedly emphasized key priorities throughout the campaign and transition process, including cracking down on illegal immigration, repealing and replacing Obamacare and getting tough on trade and offshoring. He has also pledged to roll back regulations from the Obama administration that Republicans see as burdensome on business.
    But the specifics of how those ideas will play out, in terms of legislation and executive action, still need to be hammered out, and lobbyists see an opening to help shape the process.
    In one early example of Trump's malleability, Trump's pre-election transition team was asked about some of his positions during preliminary meetings in Washington.
    In one financial services meeting, an attendee asked about Trump's past positions on reinstating Glass-Steagall, Depression-era legislation that separated commercial and investment banking. While the GOP platform called for reinstating Glass-Steagall and Trump's campaign manager at the time promoted it, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told the financial services lobbyists gathered that Trump is often open to changing his mind when he gets input from people with expertise, according to sources in the room.
    Christie is no longer running the transition process.

    Scrambling to catch up

    As K Street scrambles to catch up with the results of the election, one of the biggest priorities is to make inroads with Trump's inner circle.
    Trump's team includes incoming White House senior adviser and former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, incoming White House chief of staff and GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, incoming counselor Kellyanne Conway and former deputy campaign manager David Bossie. While some of them have been connected to politicians for years, they are much less known on K Street.
    Now, some lobby shops are desperate to recruit people who know the inner circle, hoping to make generous offers to the few they can find.
    People looking to curry favor with Trump are also donating to the fundraising avenues he maintains post-election -- his transition effort and inaugural committee. Both are independent fundraising arms from his campaign that require disclosure of donors. Transition donations are capped at $5,000 per person or corporation, while the inauguration has solicited donations of up to $1 million.
    A breakfast fundraiser for the transition featuring remarks from Trump this month brought out hundreds of attendees, including some new faces to those who had been supportive of Trump before the election.
    Billionaire Republican donor Paul Singer, who was an avid anti-Trump Republican during the election, attended the fundraiser and signaled his intent to support Trump going forward in the interest of getting good policy from the administration, according to a source familiar with Singer's thinking.
    "It's not surprising that when 90% of the Republicans in Washington are on the wrong end of a bet they never thought would turn out this way, and they're trying to figure it out," said one Republican lobbyist with close ties to Trump world of efforts to curry favor.
    The lobbyist noted that there are many "smart and savvy" people in town who know how to adapt, but not everyone will find a way in with the administration.
    "People are going to be limited though on the relationship perspective," the lobbyist said. "There are going to be some people that are able to get some visibility because of the fact that they represent sizable interests or constituencies, or because they make their message match Trump's -- and then there are going to be a lot of people scrambling around trying to justify their existence (to clients)."