WASHINGTON – One of Donald Trump’s most trusted aides is setting up a government consulting shop a block from the White House – a move that complicates the president-elect’s promises to “drain the swamp” of Washington.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, and former Trump adviser Barry Bennett announced Wednesday they are starting a government relations and political consulting firm called Avenue Strategies. They’re pitching their ties to Trump as they seek clients.
In what could be a preview of the type of work Lewandowski will do, he recently brokered a meeting between Trump and Carlos Slim, a billionaire Mexican businessman who publicly feuded with Trump throughout the campaign.
Lewandowski flew to Mexico City earlier this month to talk to Slim and then arranged a Saturday dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Lewandowski said that wasn’t part of the new firm’s business and he received no money for his work on the meeting.
Over the course of the campaign, Lewandowski was sharply critical of the role of Washington’s ruling class, which he is now joining.
“Everybody knows he will have access to the president, and if you pay him enough, he will use it on your behalf,” said Meredith McGehee, a chief at the government reform group Issue One.
Paul S. Ryan, a vice-president at the Washington watchdog Common Cause, said “capitalizing on a personal relationship for profit is exactly how money-politics works.”
It’s the type of behaviour that Trump backers thought he would curtail, Ryan and McGehee said.
“It’s hard to describe hanging out your shingle close to the White House after serving in the campaign as anything other than exactly the kind of insider access and influence that many Americans thought they were voting against,” McGehee said.
The Lewandowski move comes as another of another of Trump’s advisers says the president-elect is no longer interested in his “drain the swamp” rallying cry.
“I’m told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview that aired Wednesday on NPR.
“’Drain the swamp”’ became a staple of the final month of Trump’s campaign, with crowds chanting it as loudly as they had been shouting “build the wall” and “lock her up.” The slogan also appeared on T-shirts and signs.
It has remained part of Trump’s post-election “thank you” tour. Whether in Ohio or Florida, the crowd continued to shout along with the president-elect as he vowed to curtail corruption in Washington _ even as he revealed that he wasn’t always crazy about the catchphrase.
“I tell everyone, I hated it,” Trump said at a rally this month in Des Moines, Iowa. “Somebody said ‘drain the swamp’ and I said, ‘Oh, that is so hokey. That is so terrible.”’
Trump went on to say he kept repeating the phrase when he realized how popular it was.
Gingrich, a vice chairman of the transition team, also predicted there would be “constant fighting” over Trump’s efforts to reduce the influence of lobbyists and Washington insiders.
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Regardless of his feelings about the phrase itself, Trump’s aides say he is committed to his underlying swamp-draining policies, such as banning outgoing Trump transition and administration members from lobbying for five years. Trump also prohibits any lobbyists from joining his transition team or administration unless they de-register.
“President-elect Trump’s ethics reform policies are full speed ahead,” transition spokesman Jason Miller said. “We’re going to change the way business is done in Washington and start putting the American people first.”
Lewandowski has been a fixture at Trump Tower in New York as the president-elect forms his administration. Because he never had an official transition title, he doesn’t run afoul of Trump’s ban on transition officials going on to lobby the government.
Lewandowski said he will not register as a lobbyist. Bennett said he would register if clients ask him to do so.
In a February interview with Steve Bannon, then the executive chairman of the conservative news site Breitbart, Lewandowski railed against the culture of Washington. Bannon went on to become a Trump campaign executive and is headed to the White House as chief strategist.
“What you have is a series of people who’ve made a very, very good living by controlling politicians through their donations and making sure they get the legislation done – or not done – in Washington, DC, to best benefit their clients,” Lewandowski said. “And those days are coming to an end.”
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Steve Peoples in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.