WASHINGTON — To shape his administration, President-elect Donald Trump is drawing squarely from the “swamp” he has pledged to drain.
Trump’s transition team is staffed with long-time Washington experts and lobbyists from K Street, think tanks and political offices.
It’s a far cry from Trump’s campaign, which ended only Tuesday night, and message that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington. He has advocated congressional term limits and proposed a “five-point plan for ethics reform” that included strengthening restrictions on lobbying, including five-year bans for members and staff of the executive branch and Congress from lobbying, and expanding the definition of lobbyist to prevent more revolving door activity.
But he has so far fully embraced lobbyists within his transition, and all signs point to a heavy influence from longtime Washington Republican circles on his transition. And with Trump mostly skipping detailed policy proposals during his campaign, these they can have a powerful impact on his agenda.
Leaders in his transition include former Rep. Mike Rogers, former Reagan Attorney General and Heritage Foundation fellow Edwin Meese, former President of Heritage Edwin Feulner, former Bush administration official and lobbyist Christine Ciccone, former Dick Cheney adviser Ado Machida, former Senate Budget Committee staffer Eric Ueland and former Sen. Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff Rick Dearborn. The effort is chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Trump counts former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sessions as close advisers.
Lower level staffers assigned with crafting different departments are also heavily drawn from K Street, the center of lobbying in Washington, and congressional staff, according to a staff organizational chart obtained by CNN.
Sources close to the operation say Sessions and the conservative Heritage Foundation have had a strong role in shaping the transition, in addition to staffers from the Bush administration, K Street and Capitol Hill.
At a Heritage Foundation event Thursday, John Yoo, a Berkeley Law professor and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, got a warm reception from the crowd by cracking about the closeness.
“I’m surprised there are so many people here because I thought everyone at Heritage was working over at transition headquarters,” Yoo said on the panel about Trump’s win. “I asked the taxi cab driver to take me to Trump transition headquarters and he dropped me off here, instead.”
The crowd let out an appreciative laugh.
Insiders seek to sway Trump’s policy direction
Trump’s policy is likely to be shaped largely by Republican stalwarts. Trump’s policy positions throughout the election have been thinner than traditional campaigns, and he has made contradictory statements at times or has changed his state policy goals amid criticism.
Meese told CNN that in general, the transition is going “very well,” and suspected the heavy involvement from key Heritage personnel shows that his think tank will have a strong influence on Trump. With Trump having less experience in some areas of policy, he will have to draw on others’ expertise to craft his positions, Meese said.
Early in the transition process, staff including Chairman Chris Christie held a series of meetings on K Street in Washington with different industry groups and key lobbyists.
Sources in those meetings said the conversations were top level, but when asked about specific policies, the transition team signaled they would be open to input from K Street.
In one financial services meeting, an attendee asked about Trump’s past positions on reinstating Glass-Steagall, legislation that regulated banks. While the GOP platform called for reinstating Glass-Steagall and Trump’s campaign manager at the time promoted it, Christie told the financial services lobbyists gathered that Trump is often open to changing his mind when he gets input from people with expertise.
Lobbyists around Washington feel that the Trump administration could be heavily influenced by their input, as his campaign’s policy positions were considerably thinner than Hillary Clinton’s, and some of his promises could be open to interpretation.
It also helps K Street that the Republican Party is far from united on policy. Establishment Republicans and allies of House Speaker Paul Ryan expect Ryan’s “Better Way” agenda to drive much of Trump’s administration, as Ryan has been working to promote it for years in the House and has even toured the country touting it.
But social conservatives and farther right Republicans like the Heritage circle have seen hope in Trump’s campaign promises and closeness with Sessions — signaling hard-line positions on immigration and social issues.
Fighting with K Street to fill jobs
Both sides are trying to influence his policy development and have representation on the transition team. Trump’s Cabinet appointments could signal which way he’s leaning.
A senior aide to Vice President-elect Mike Pence said that the former congressman would have a strong role in Trump’s administration working with Congress and on legislation. But the aide also said that the transition would have to find people outside of Washington to staff the administration.
“This campaign was an outsider campaign. It would be foolish to go ahead and place a whole bunch of DC insiders into roles, right?” the adviser said. “So it’ll be a mix.”
Trump is also competing with lobbying shops themselves for some of the top talent in Washington. Having prepared mostly for a Hillary Clinton presidency, Washington had been hiring Democratic talent. After Trump’s surprising win, K Street is also trying to staff up with the best GOP policy staff from Capitol Hill and around DC.
James Wallner, group vice president of research at Heritage, said he is encouraged that Trump will heed the recommendations of his organization for two reasons. One is that their ideals line up with many of his campaign promises, and two is that Heritage has made an effort to craft all of their recommendations in an easy-to-use manner.
“You don’t have time to digest a huge tome of material to have some moment of enlightenment to say, ‘Oh I’ve figured out how to solve our health care problem.’ You really need actionable type information that you can then process and make up your own mind on how to proceed and how to advise people to proceed,” Wallner said. “As long as President-elect Trump appoints people to this administration that are going to do things that are consistent with the promises he made while campaigning for this office that the American people clearly supported, then I’m optimistic about where we’re going.”