As for so many other people, election night did not pan out quite the way Robert Stryk expected. Stryk began the night slumped in a Morton’s steakhouse in downtown Washington, tuning out the guests at his watch party to type out the campaign announcement of a buddy who — in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s all-but-certain defeat and the Republican Party implosion that was sure to follow — planned to make a long-shot bid for chairman of the Republican National Committee. He ended it by closing down the bar at the Mayflower Hotel, and after the race was called, giddily marching down Connecticut Avenue with his friends as they chanted, ‘‘Make America Great Again!’’
Stryk, who owned a lobbying firm so small it didn’t actually have an office, spent most of his time in California and owned a small vineyard in Oregon, and he had helped out the Trump campaign as a sort of informal West Coast hand. He was still reveling in Trump’s upset win two nights later, over a bottle of wine on the patio of the Four Seasons in Georgetown, when a chocolate Lab padded over to his table to sniff his crotch. Stryk and the dog’s owner got to talking about wine and cigars and finally, like most of the country, about Trump. It turned out that she worked for New Zealand’s Embassy in Washington. New Zealand’s prime minister still hadn’t connected with the new president-elect, she told Stryk — a diplomatic and political embarrassment. Stryk cocked an eye across the table. ‘‘What if I said I could get you the number of someone to call the president?’’ he asked her.
The following afternoon, Stryk found himself in a cab, headed for a meeting with New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, Tim Groser. Stryk was more than a little nervous. On the way over, he called a friend named Stuart Jolly, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who ran Trump’s field operation during the Republican primary and spent election night with Stryk at Morton’s. Jolly reached out to someone he knew in the Trump high command and delivered a cell number, but Stryk didn’t know if it would actually work. At the embassy, Groser invited him in, uncorked a bottle of pinot noir and called the prime minister to pass along the number. A week later, President-elect Trump was finally able to accept a congratulatory phone call. But even before the call went through, plans and possibilities were blooming in Stryk’s mind. ‘‘I said to myself: ‘This could be very, very interesting,’ ’’ he told me when I first met him this spring. ‘‘ ‘The world’s going to change.’ ’’
Stryk, who grew up in Arizona, had bounced around the minor leagues of politics for most of his adult life. At 41, he has the frenetic energy of a serial entrepreneur and the motley résumé to match. After dropping out of college to intern on Capitol Hill, Stryk wrote voter-contact scripts for a Republican P.R. firm, helped start a political job-listing website and eventually opened his own Beltway lobbying shop, Sonoran Policy Group. The firm almost collapsed in 2009, after Stryk tried to acquire a troubled Maryland-based security-guard business. Stryk decamped to California, owing thousands of dollars in back rent, and reinvented S.P.G. as a procurement and political-consulting business. He traded tequila shots with the California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, ran for mayor of a town in Napa Valley, handled P.R. for an arms dealer accused of smuggling weapons to Libya — the case was dropped last fall — and helped clients sell the government everything from flashlights to missile-guidance software. By the time he hooked up with the Trump campaign, Stryk had hustled his way to a good living, and he knew his way around Washington. But he was no one’s idea of a Beltway insider.
When the phone call to Trump went through, Stryk saw the geography of a new world forming before his eyes. Interests that spent millions of dollars studying Washington and shaping it to their liking had been taken totally by surprise by Trump’s win. The rules had changed, and no one was sure what the new ones were. For Stryk, it was the opportunity he had been waiting for. As he saw it, the lobbying old guard — the guys that threw down black Amex cards at Joe’s Crab and sent fat quarterly bills to clients they barely did any work for — were on the defensive. New people would have a chance. People like Stryk.
New Zealand was a prime example. Groser and his staff had spent months researching Hillary Clinton, calculating who among her vast claque would win positions of power and influence in her administration. The main thing they knew about Trump was that he had sworn to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the complex 12-nation trade deal that Groser helped negotiate. Stryk, offering to work free, had a proposal. New Zealand would throw the biggest party of Trump’s inauguration. Stryk would put the new administration’s leading lights in the room; Groser would do the rest. ‘‘It was about building brand recognition for New Zealand,’’ Stryk explained. ‘‘If we can get them there, then forever, bad or good, Trump and New Zealand are a co-brand.’’
In the tumult following Trump’s win, Stryk was discovering that many of his old friends — most of them fellow Washington backbenchers, B-listers and understudies — had vaulted to positions of unexpected influence. A guy Stryk knew at the inaugural committee put out the word among Trump alums that New Zealand’s party was the week’s hot ticket. Stryk called a friend at Salem Media, the right-leaning media-and-talk-radio company, which signed on as a party sponsor. Another friend, the actor Jon Voight, agreed to attend as a special celebrity guest.
In January, hundreds of guests packed into to the embassy’s chancery, among them dozens of Trump-campaign alumni and future West Wing staff. Stryk rented a tuxedo jacket for the occasion. Groser gave a Trump-friendly speech, lauding the end of political correctness and the dawn of a new era in Kiwi-American relations. ‘‘We had a party that rocked, frankly,’’ he told me recently. In one night, New Zealand had upended Washington’s elaborate diplomatic pecking order. Diplomats and social secretaries at other embassies were left wondering how the country had pulled in so many Trump V.I.P.s. Trumpworld, previously inscrutable and unreachable to Groser’s team, was now populated by friendly faces. ‘‘Robert showed, ‘I’m connected,’ ’’ he told me.
Groser decided to hire Stryk full time. Not long after, Stryk pulled $250,000 out of his savings, moved his family to the Washington suburbs and started hiring.
There are about 10,000 registered lobbyists in Washington — roughly 20 for every member of Congress — and thousands more unregistered ones: consultants and ‘‘strategic advisers’’ who are paid to help shape government policy but do not disclose their clients. By whatever name, they are the people companies and countries hire to help roll back regulations, unstick bids, tweak legislation or get meetings. Lobbying is at once Washington’s most maligned, enduring and essential industry. Underpaid young politicos and retiring lawmakers depend on Beltway lobby shops — known as ‘‘K Street’’ after the city boulevard that once housed many of them — for the high-six-figure salaries that will loft them into Washington’s petite aristocracy. Congress needs K Street, too: After decades of cutting its own staff and research arms, much of Capitol Hill’s institutional memory and policy expertise now resides in the lobbying industry. But the private sector needs lobbyists the most. The modern federal government is so sprawling and complex that it practically demands a specialized class of middlemen and -women.
Over the decades, lobbying has evolved from a niche trade of fixers and gatekeepers to a sleek, vertically integrated, $3-billion-a-year industry. A good lobbyist doesn’t go into a meeting asking for legislation; she or he already has the bill drafted, a coalition of businesses and trade groups poised to support it, a policy brief to hand out to reporters and to the officials positioned at dozens of decision points throughout the bureaucracy and relationships with advertising and polling firms to manage the public rollout. Everyone has a lobbyist — or three, or 50 — and the lobbyists know everyone. K Street is majestic and immovable, veined through Washington like fat through a prime steak.
Like virtually every other candidate for president, Trump campaigned against this thicket of money and influence, positioning himself as an outsider who would ‘‘drain the swamp.’’ This pledge would soon prove more rhetorical than real, but it contained a grain of truth. Trump arrived in Washington with a relatively short baggage train of Beltway relationships and obligations. He didn’t read policy briefs; he barely had policies. His inner circle was a hodgepodge of Breitbart alumni, nominally Democratic financiers, Trump Organization employees on loan, the odd reality-show star and Republicans who would have been unemployable in almost any other administration. The smart money in Washington — K Street and K Street’s clients, the big corporations and trade associations — didn’t quite know what to expect. But mostly, they didn’t know whom to call.
‘‘Many companies want to understand: What are the president’s priorities?’’ Corey Lewandowski told me in February, a few weeks after the inauguration. ‘‘But there are so few people in Washington who have a relationship or an understanding of him.’’ Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager, was happy to tell you that he was one of the few exceptions.
Lewandowski’s journey from obscure New Hampshire political operative to celebrity power broker was emblematic of how Trump’s election scrambled Washington’s hierarchies. Much like Stryk, Lewandowski had spent years in the lower ranks of conservative politics and lobbying. Being hired as Trump’s campaign manager moved Lewandowski into the political big time, and being fired, midway through the race, did little to dislodge him. There were speaking gigs, a stint as a reliably pro-Trump pundit on CNN. At one point last year, Lewandowski even tried selling a book, tentatively titled ‘‘Let Trump Be Trump’’; Stryk, introduced to Lewandowski by a mutual friend, helped him shop the proposal. ‘‘Corey had a brand,’’ Stryk told me, and that brand was valuable. HarperCollins offered Lewandowski $1.2 million, an astounding figure for a campaign manager — though the deal evaporated when Lewandowski refused to show HarperCollins a copy of his nondisclosure agreement with Trump.
‘We don’t want to sell ourselves as just the Trump guys. But maybe that’s what it takes for the first few years.’
Through it all, Lewandowski remained close to Trump and spoke to him often. But after the election, the White House job Lewandowski hoped for never quite materialized. Now Lewandowski, too, was on K Street. He had joined up with another former Trump aide, Barry Bennett, to start a lobbying firm called Avenue Strategies.
Unlike other people on K Street, Lewandowski did not pretend to be an expert on the legislative calendar or the fine points of the Administrative Procedure Act. He was an expert on Trump. ‘‘There are just so few people in Washington who know the president,’’ Lewandowski told me in February. ‘‘It’s a comparative advantage.’’ He was not shy about playing up their friendship. He sometimes tweeted from the White House grounds. When journalists or other visitors came to his office, on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the White House, he would point out his window to where, he claimed, he could see the president’s bedroom.
His mind-meld with Trump was what made him valuable to clients, Lewandowski explained to me. ‘‘I think what I bring is a level of understanding of the president’s thought process,’’ he said, ‘‘only because I had the privilege of being next to him for so long.’’ He was doing as many as nine or 10 meetings a day: Chief executives, prominent Republicans, even other lobbying firms wanted his advice. He offered it freely, Lewandowski told me. He wanted to be helpful. ‘‘You know what a guy said to me the other day?’’ he said. ‘‘ ‘You’ve got a hot hand. Just remember, that hand’s not going to be hot forever.’ ’’
One good source of business was the president’s habit of calling chief executives to the White House for televised meetings. In January, when the chief executive of Whirlpool was summoned by Trump to discuss how to revive American jobs, the company asked Avenue Strategies to advise it. As one lobbyist who shared clients with Lewandowski put it to me, companies like Whirlpool needed to know the lay of the land inside the White House: How much sway did Wilbur Ross have? Was Steve Bannon for real? And what should the company do if Trump started dumping on it on Twitter?
Everyone had seen what happened to Lockheed Martin. Lockheed, the federal government’s single biggest contractor, is a powerful presence inside the Beltway. But through the winter, Trump had lashed out at the company over cost overruns on the F-35 fighter jet. The company’s shares dropped each time, taking Lockheed’s value down by billions of dollars. These were the kinds of problems that Lewandowski believed others on K Street couldn’t help with. ‘‘If you’re a corporate C.E.O. and the president has tweeted at you and your stock has dropped 4 percent, you say: ‘Why am I paying all these guys so much money?’ ’’ Lewandowski said. The old model of Washington influence wouldn’t work on Trump, he believed. ‘‘They don’t know him, and they don’t know any of his guys, and they don’t understand how he thinks.’’ Eventually Lockheed, too, turned to Avenue.
Over the course of a few conversations with the company’s Washington office, Bennett told me, they advised Lockheed on how Marillyn Hewson, its president and chief executive, should approach conversations: ‘‘Short, direct, honest answers,’’ as Bennett recounted it for me later. ‘‘Feel free to educate the president. In the end, it’s going to be transactional.’’ The next time Hewson met with Trump, a week before the inauguration, she came bearing gifts: a potential F-35 price cut and a promise to add jobs at a Texas plant.
The Twitter attacks ceased. By the end of February, Trump was praising Lockheed. ‘‘They’ve just announced eighteen hundred new jobs,’’ Trump told reporters after a meeting with Hewson and other manufacturing executives. ‘‘I have to say this, Marillyn, you’ve gotten a lot of credit because what you did was the right thing.’’
Lewandowski’s help did not come cheap. A typical boutique lobbying firm might charge $10,000 to $15,000 a month. A big lobbying or law firm, with teams of paralegals or assistants and high overhead, might charge twice that, with a three-month retainer. Avenue sometimes asked for as much as $50,000 a month — a top-shelf price on K Street — and Lewandowski on occasion tried to go higher. But there were plenty of takers: By midwinter, Avenue had ‘‘more than a dozen, less than 50’’ clients, Lewandowski told me at the time.
The demand was so great that would-be Trump-whisperers were popping up in Washington like toadstools after a rainstorm. The former Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, a ‘‘senior adviser’’ to the lobbying practice at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, was hawking a book titled ‘‘Understanding Trump.’’ Established K Street firms were grabbing any Trump people they could find: Jim Murphy, Trump’s former political director, joined the lobbying giant BakerHostetler, while another firm, Fidelis Government Relations, struck up a partnership with Bill Smith, Mike Pence’s former chief of staff. All told, close to 20 ex-aides of Trump, friends and hangers-on had made their way into Washington’s influence business.
Beltway experience was not necessarily required. Squire Patton Boggs formed a ‘‘strategic alliance’’ with Michael Cohen, Trump’s self-described ‘‘personal attorney’’ from New York, who had scant government experience. There was also Brad Gerstman, a brawny Long Island lobbyist and P.R. man who had done work for Trump in New York over the years. On election night, Gerstman was so sure Trump was going to lose that he got on a plane to Israel. As Gerstman tells it, his business partner called as soon as he landed. ‘‘Why the hell are you in Tel Aviv?’’ his partner asked. ‘‘We have an office to open in Washington.’’ Gerstman hung up and went to his hotel, where he looked out over the Mediterranean, put a cigar in his mouth and listened to the congratulatory messages piled up in his voice mail. In January, he set up an office in downtown Washington. ‘‘We don’t want to sell ourselves as just the Trump guys,’’ Gerstman told me. ‘‘But maybe that’s what it takes for the first few years.’’
Many of the Trump-connected lobbyists told me they were turning away as much business as they accepted. One person offered Lewandowski $250,000 just to get the president to tweet about him. A lobbyist who worked on Trump’s inaugural committee told me of a billionaire who, within a week of the inauguration, offered a million dollars if the lobbyist could arrange for his picture to be taken in the Oval Office with the new president. ‘‘You can make $2 million if you want,’’ Bennett told me, sounding almost apologetic. ‘‘It’s like: ‘I’ve got a gold mine in Eastern Europe.’ Or: ‘My client is suing the I.R.S. — can you help?’ ’’
Not all of the new arrivals affected to be part of a revolution. One day this spring, I met with Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida lobbyist and top-tier Republican fund-raiser. Ballard had recently opened an office in Washington just a few blocks from the new Trump International Hotel. He had known Trump since the 1980s, and he later started lobbying regulators and state officials on behalf of Trump’s golf courses and his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, but he was practical about the realities of politics. Like most of Florida’s Republican old guard, he started the 2016 campaign backing the state’s former governor, Jeb Bush, before switching to the state’s junior senator, Marco Rubio. Once it became clear that Trump would lead the Republican ticket, Ballard enthusiastically joined the campaign as Trump’s Florida finance chairman.
Ballard, who is 56, had a ruddy Florida tan that marked him as new in town, and the serene confidence of a man who saw no way he could lose. At his office, an attractive receptionist led us into a spotless conference room. ‘‘I’m not an expert in Washington, D.C.,’’ Ballard told me when we sat down. ‘‘I’m an expert in lobbying.’’ In Florida, Ballard had a blue-chip list of corporate clients: Google, pharmaceutical companies, Big Sugar. His business plan was simple: to sign up his Florida clients for Trump-related advice in Washington. ‘‘When I was on the campaign, they didn’t want to pitch in,’’ Ballard said of his clients. ‘‘And now they say: ‘How do I figure out what is going on here?’ ’’
By the end of his first 100 days in office, it seemed, Trump had not so much drained the swamp as enshrouded it with a billowing fog of uncertainty. No previous president had changed his mind more often, or contradicted his cabinet so frequently, or permitted such vicious ideological combat under his White House roof. Many clients just wanted to know what they could safely ignore. ‘‘White Houses are always somewhat opaque places of fascination, where you don’t quite know who is up and who is down, or how decisions are ultimately reached,’’ said Bruce P. Mehlman, a prominent Republican lobbyist who served in the George W. Bush administration. ‘‘The added complexity here was there was not a single consistent governing philosophy. It was not clear if the president saw trade the way that Gary Cohn sees it or the way Steve Bannon sees it.’’
Moreover, some of the usual paths through the bog were now closed. Hundreds of senior administration jobs were going unfilled, as Trump’s cabinet secretaries battled with his inner circle over potential hires from among the Republican regulars in Washington. One lobbyist at a well-regarded firm with numerous financial clients told me that his problem was less that he didn’t know whom to call than that there was no one to call: Infighting and vetting problems had stymied so many appointments at the Treasury Department that many of the offices were empty.
All of this had inadvertently created an entirely new business model for Trump’s friends and former employees. In normal times, K Street did much of its business on Capitol Hill, where the churn of legislation offered unending opportunity to deliver goodies for clients. But the power vacuum in Trump’s cabinet agencies, and the inexperience of his West Wing staff, seemed to offer a different kind of opening. It was easy to imagine that a single phone call, coming from the right person, could redirect a major policy initiative. Some of the old firms would do O.K., Lewandowski thought — the ones that had relationships in Congress, that understood the intricate ballet of lawmaking. But the real action, he was betting, would be at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. ‘‘I think this particular administration is really going to be driving the agenda,’’ he told me. ‘‘Not Congress.’’
After New Zealand, Stryk’s phone barely stopped ringing, and he quickly built up his own shop. Stuart Jolly, the ex-Trump campaign aide who worked out the phone call for New Zealand, became the new president of S.P.G. Stryk hired a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief and a few other ex-military and intelligence types, people who had contacts and expertise abroad. He also brought on an earnest young small-town lawyer from Oregon named Jacob Daniels, whom he met through his vineyard business. Daniels had been working out of his car, mostly on drunken-driving cases, when Stryk recommended him to Jolly for a job with the Trump campaign. Daniels ended up as the campaign’s second in command in Michigan, where Trump became the first Republican to win in almost 30 years, making Daniels a Trumpworld rising star. Now he was Stryk’s vice president of policy.
On a balmy spring day in April, I met Stryk and a few of his colleagues on a terrace at the Army-Navy Country Club, a sprawling and immaculate golf club near the Pentagon; S.P.G. still didn’t have a proper office. Stryk wore cowboy boots and a T-shirt under a rumpled black sport coat. Most of K Street, he told me, was ‘‘a washing machine. Money just goes from one firm to another. No one creates any new wealth.’’ Stryk’s own politics leaned libertarian, he told me; despite his firm’s ties to the Trump team, he didn’t think of himself as particularly Trumpy. One of the new hires, a Democratic foreign-policy veteran, had been good friends with Paul Wellstone, the liberal senator who died in 2002. ‘‘We’re here for the opportunities,’’ Stryk said. ‘‘Not for the ideology.’’
Stryk was focusing not on nervous companies but on nervous countries. He and his new team had made a list of the governments S.P.G. wanted to work for — NATO allies mostly, nothing iffy like Ukraine or Pakistan — and with New Zealand as his calling card, they pitched S.P.G. as the go-to foreign lobbying and advisory firm in Trump’s Washington. Historically, foreign lobbying has been a specialized business dominated by a few big firms. Stryk viewed them as he viewed the rest of the lobbying industry: as a cartel ripe for disruption. Stryk pitched his clients policy expertise, round-the-clock work habits and personalized service.
Stryk believed his team could penetrate the uncertainty surrounding the White House. He wanted to be a ‘‘calming resource for foreign countries and businesses,’’ he told me — and there was a lot of calming to do. Over the course of a few months, the new president had managed to start a trade war with Canada, picked a fight with the prime minister of Australia and hinted that the United States might need to pull out of NATO. He also wanted to slash the State Department budget, and through the spring and summer, many senior jobs at State would remain unfilled. Everyone, even close allies, was looking for Sherpas and back doors. R. Nicholas Burns, the veteran American diplomat, told me that Trump’s denuded State Department had left diplomats from perhaps a hundred countries — most of them smaller nations — without their traditional liaison to the United States government. ‘‘There’s never been anything like this, ever,’’ Burns said.
Trump’s statecraft had a way of generating new business in other ways, too. The president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, was not a popular figure in Barack Obama’s Washington: A right-wing populist who preached closer ties to Russia, he once banned the United States ambassador from Prague Castle, the Czech seat of government. Trump, naturally, invited him to Washington, and Zeman’s government hired Stryk’s firm to help plan the state visit. New Zealand needed to talk to the administration about a new bilateral trade agreement, now that Trump was withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A Korean trade association wanted help planning a conference in Washington but didn’t know anyone in the Trump White House. Stryk’s people got on the phone, cold-calling around the Commerce Department to find a senior official who would speak at the event. ‘‘Most lobbyists are afraid of a ‘no,’ ’’ Stryk said. ‘‘A ‘no’ means you have no juice. I’m not afraid of ‘no.’ ’’
But Stryk’s greatest coup was Saudi Arabia. Gulf-state oligarchs spend tens of millions of dollars a year lobbying in Washington and larding influential think tanks with grant money, and Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest spenders. The country’s then-crown prince and minister of the interior, Mohammed bin Nayef, was an exception: He enjoyed deep ties to the American intelligence apparatus under President Obama and had never needed a lobbyist. This spring, however, Trump invited Nayef’s chief rival — Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and the king’s son — to a formal White House lunch. The lunch sent ripples through Riyadh. Did Trump favor Salman? Accidentally or on purpose, Trump had just waded into Saudi Arabia’s treacherous succession politics. Nayef found himself in need of guidance.
In May, S.P.G. signed a contract to provide ‘‘congressional and executive branch brand engagement’’ to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior — Nayef’s domain. Stryk did not want to reveal much about his work for the Saudis, but lobbying records show that the fee was $5.4 million, payable up front.
That was the other thing about foreign lobbying: It paid even better than corporate lobbying. Inevitably, Stryk had competition.
In keeping with Trump’s America First campaign pledge, Barry Bennett once told reporters that Avenue would not work for foreign governments. Foreign politicians were another matter. By March, Bennett was sitting in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel with an Albanian party leader named Lulzim Basha.
Basha was the young chairman of the Democratic Party of Albania, the country’s conservative party, which was looking to unseat the ruling Socialist Party in elections scheduled for June. Basha borrowed liberally from Trump’s playbook; he had attacked the Socialists for being in bed with crime syndicates and, simultaneously, with George Soros, whose foundation was active in Albania. His slogan was ‘‘Make Albania Great Again.’’ Now, according to Bennett, Basha wanted help beating the Socialists in June — and who better to advise him than a couple of Trump-campaign veterans? Bennett told me that it was a cordial meeting and that he later sent Basha a proposed contract. ‘‘I told him we’d love to be his political consultant,’’ Bennett said. (Through a representative, Basha declined to comment.)
Through an intermediary, the Albanian Democrats also reached out to Ballard, who was making his own push into foreign lobbying. He had brought on board a couple of partners with experience in Eastern Europe and Latin America, including a former Democratic congressman and a former ambassador. ‘‘They called me,’’ Ballard said of Basha’s party. ‘‘I wouldn’t know Albania in an atlas.’’ Ballard told them he couldn’t help them. He was already working with the Albanian Socialists.
‘White Houses are always somewhat opaque places of fascination, where you don’t quite know who is up and who is down, or how decisions are ultimately reached. The added complexity here was there was not a single consistent governing philosophy.’
When a friend referred the Socialists to him, Ballard told me, he had two questions. ‘‘I asked: ‘Is it a democracy?’ Yes. ‘Are they an ally of the U.S.?’ Yes.’’ The Socialists had a story that was becoming increasingly familiar in Washington. After Trump won, most of the American diplomats their government had worked with seemed to vanish, and no one replaced them. One Albanian official, who asked not to be identified by name, told me his government felt that ‘‘we had to increase our presence in Washington.’’ I asked him how his government picked Ballard. ‘‘The internet makes it easy,’’ he told me. ‘‘You just Google.’’
But as companies and countries vied for Trump’s ear over the spring, the new Trump lobbyists found themselves competing with one another as much as with the established Washington firms. Ballard, for example, had explored working for members of the Venezuelan opposition. (‘‘I’m no world-peace guy,’’ he told me, ‘‘but I think I can help a little bit.’’) Lewandowski’s firm, meanwhile, was pitching Citgo, the American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. (Avenue eventually signed Citgo, and in August the Trump administration would partly exempt the company from a new round of sanctions on the Venezuelan government.) Ballard was also working out a $1.5 million contract with Turkey — which put him up against Brad Gerstman, Trump’s old New York guy. Gerstman’s firm, Gotham Government Relations, had signed up a company linked to Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government blames for fomenting last year’s failed coup.
Not many lobbyists wanted to represent the Gulenists, partly because Trump appeared to have already picked a side. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey won a widely disputed referendum in April granting himself expanded powers, Trump called to congratulate him. When Erdogan visited the White House some weeks later, Trump praised the bravery of Turkish soldiers and talked about beating ISIS together.
I watched Erdogan and Trump’s joint news conference on TV with Gerstman, who had been hired to spread the word about Erdogan’s worldwide oppression of Gulenists. When Erdogan referred to the Gulen ‘‘terrorist organization,’’ you could see Trump purse his lips during the translation, then nod a few times. It wasn’t totally clear what the president was nodding about. Gerstman remained hopeful. ‘‘Our view is that six months from now, everything is going to look different,’’ he told me. ‘‘It’s fluid. It’s dynamic.’’ He looked thoughtful. ‘‘One thing we know about President Trump is he’s not afraid to change.’’
One afternoon in late April, Jolly, Stryk’s marquee Trumpworld hire, called me out of the blue. He was leaving S.P.G., he said. He told me he had grown uncomfortable with the firm’s auditions for foreign clients, so he was going back to his own political-consulting business.
Stryk was having his own qualms. Lewandowski had beaten him on some pitches, Stryk was told by prospective clients, by promising that he could get Trump on the phone — a promise Stryk felt he could not make. ‘‘We don’t sell access to Trump,’’ he told me. ‘‘I don’t know Donald Trump.’’ He was increasingly impatient with the notion that he was simply providing entree to the new administration. He was in negotiations to acquire a small design and branding firm. He saw S.P.G. evolving into something bigger and more stable, a full-service ‘‘advisory’’ company that could compete with the most sophisticated shops on K Street — and beyond. Stryk saw Lewandowski’s firm, and some of the others associated with the new administration, as short-term plays. They could sell access or surf the disruption, but he aimed to outlast it. ‘‘Do they have business outside of this Trump phenomenon?’’ Stryk mused. ‘‘The talk around town is, how long does this last before the business goes back to the establishment?’’
Among the new arrivals, Ballard, at least, was doing pretty well. After only a few months in Washington, he had signed up more than 30 clients: energy companies, insurers, Amazon, American Airlines. The new Washington office would soon be on track to make $15 million in 2017, almost as much as his firm reported making in Florida last year. Ballard, unlike some of his competitors, was at ease in the swamp. He didn’t want to beat the Washington establishment; he was here to join it. ‘‘There’s no big firm that should worry about us,’’ Ballard told me. ‘‘We augment other people, or they augment us. The Trump guys are not going to take over the town.’’
If anything, the Trump guys were learning the downsides of proximity to the president. By spring, the Justice Department had appointed a special counsel to probe Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, an investigation that would quickly reach into the president’s inner circle. The various White House factions seemed to spend as much time planting negative press on one another as they did figuring out what the president should do. When the White House got involved in big legislative battles, like the Obamacare repeal effort, it tended to hurt, not help.
Proximity was proving an especially mixed blessing for Lewandowski. A stream of news stories had detailed promises he was supposedly making to clients, which he mostly denied — not just phone calls with Trump but also visits with White House officials and even access to Trump’s Twitter account. In late April, Politico reported that Lewandowski and Bennett also owned another, separate company called Washington East West Political Strategies. This new firm, a vehicle for overseas consulting, had circulated at least one written proposal promising to arrange meetings with Trump and other administration officials, seeming to undercut Lewandowski’s earlier denials. I later obtained a copy of the proposal, which named the potential client: Edi Rama, Albania’s Socialist prime minister. The new firm — or as Bennett later explained, a business associate in Europe, acting without authorization — had pitched opposing candidates in the same campaign.
Official Washington professed itself to be aghast at Lewandowski, who did not bother to couch his sales pitches in the Beltway’s customary euphemisms: He was what they pretended not to be. Ethics watchdogs cast him as living proof of the hollowness of Trump’s campaign promise to ‘‘drain the swamp.’’ Lewandowski disagreed. In his view, the swamp was the sprawling, unresponsive bureaucracy, not the people you paid to help you get your phone calls returned. Still, friends of Lewandowski’s told me that White House officials had advised him to keep a lower profile.
By that point, it was hard to know exactly how well Avenue was doing. As the summer recess drew near, the firm had disclosed fewer than 10 lobbying clients. Among them were a San Diego-based environmental consulting firm and an Ohio payday lender — valuable clients, but not quite blue-chip. For every Whirlpool that asked Lewandowski for help, his rivals told me, there was another big company that decided he was too radioactive. Lockheed never actually signed a contract with Avenue; when news leaked of Lewandowski’s role in advising it on Trump, a Lockheed spokesman issued a carefully worded statement that ‘‘Lockheed has not retained Lewandowski, or his lobbying firm.’’ In the same way that most big chief executives turned up their noses at Trump during the campaign but now hoped he would deliver tax reform and sweeping deregulation, they wanted Lewandowski’s help without being too closely associated with him.
Then, too, Lewandowski’s clout wasn’t always what he promised. Puerto Rico’s government, for example, hired Avenue to help ease the island’s fiscal crisis. But the job pitted Lewandowski against a coalition of hedge funds that owned much of Puerto Rico’s debt, and whose former lobbyist Trump had installed on his National Economic Council. The swamp’s old guard prevailed: In late April, as Puerto Rican officials were begging Congress for more federal funding, Trump publicly dismissed their cause in his trademark fashion. ‘‘Democrats are trying to bail out insurance companies from disastrous #ObamaCare, and Puerto Rico with your tax dollars,’’ Trump tweeted. ‘‘Sad!’’
In a sense, Lewandowski’s biggest problem was the president himself. Lewandowski had bet that the White House would be the center of energy and action in Trump’s Washington, but instead the Trump administration was being swallowed by its own chaos. Divided by factions and backbiting, unable to wield full control of the bureaucracy or execute on many of its own ambitions, the administration was in danger of becoming a minor player in the policy debates of the day. Many companies were coming to the conclusion that on complex issues like tax reform, their energies were better directed at lawmakers on Capitol Hill — and their money better spent at the traditional lobbying firms stocked with ex-lawmakers and their former aides.
Moreover, despite Trump’s campaign pledges, many of the agencies he now oversaw had proved more than friendly to the legions of longtime Beltway lobbyists working for the energy, telecommunications and other industries. In many cases, Trump had hired them outright: By the summer, he had appointed more than 100 lobbyists to jobs in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, the Federal Communications Commission and elsewhere. Their old clients didn’t need much help from the new Trump guys on K Street. They already knew exactly whom to call.
Perhaps that’s why the traditional lobbying shops were doing just fine. As for protecting clients from Trump’s Twitter howitzer — well, that had turned out to be easier than it looked, several lobbyists told me: Just show up in person, promise the president you’ll create some jobs and publicly give him the credit. ‘‘You make it about Trump and you link it to jobs, and you could be Russia or China and he will support you,’’ one told me. ‘‘It is that unsophisticated.’’
Lewandowski’s office, when I finally got to see it, turned out to be a cramped room with scuffed yellow walls. His desk held a couple of commemorative Trump pens and a warm can of Monster energy drink. A new whiteboard, still in its wrapping, leaned against one wall; a carry-on suitcase leaned against another. I could see the White House, but only if I leaned over his desk and craned my neck.
‘‘There it is,’’ Lewandowski said, a little halfheartedly, pointing out the window. His day had not gotten off to a great start. That morning, Puerto Rico had filed for a territorial version of bankruptcy. A prominent watchdog group had sent a letter to the Justice Department asking officials there to investigate why Lewandowski had never registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a World War II-era law that imposes stringent disclosure requirements on Americans representing foreign governments in Washington. (Though Bennett and other Avenue employees had registered as lobbyists, Lewandowski insisted that most of his business was advising clients on strategy, not setting up meetings or contacting officials on their behalf, the kind of work that requires you to register.) Politico had struck again, revealing Avenue’s Citgo contract. Technically, the United States-based company was owned by the left-wing government of Venezuela, whose vice president the Trump administration had accused of drug trafficking.
Lewandowski told me he didn’t work directly for foreign governments, notwithstanding the stories and documents. Not that he wouldn’t be good at it — you know, if he wanted to. ‘‘I don’t work for foreign governments, but if I were a foreign government, and I wanted to hire people who understood how to get to the president, there are a small number of people I would think of,’’ Lewandowski said. As he spoke, he seemed to recover his familiar brio. ‘‘The establishment is so afraid of President Trump they will do anything. Which includes hiring individuals who have purported to be tied to the White House who really aren’t.’’
‘We’re here for the opportunities. Not for the ideology.’
The next day, Lewandowski announced he was quitting Avenue. In a lengthy interview with Bloomberg, he explained that Bennett and their employees had been using his name to drum up business he didn’t want, exposing him to criticism and sullying his reputation. He insisted he had never asked Trump for anything. ‘‘People want to see me fail,’’ Lewandowski grumbled.
‘‘I feel bad for Corey,’’ Bennett told me when I went to see him the following week. ‘‘He didn’t do anything wrong. But he’s a lightning rod.’’ Bob Dole, he pointed out, had just signed a $500,000 contract for work on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a violence-racked country run by a kleptocratic strongman. But no one in Washington gave Bob Dole a hard time.
‘‘He thought he could go in’’ — into the White House — ‘‘during the second wave,’’ Bennett said of Lewandowski. K Street was just a way station for him, Bennett suggested, while he waited for the only job he truly wanted — the one he could picture when he gazed out his window, down Pennsylvania Avenue. ‘‘Looking back on it, he probably should never have owned a chunk of a lobbying firm. In the media’s mind, every client we had was Corey’s client.’’ But even with Lewandowski gone, Bennett said, there was plenty of work. ‘‘All of K Street is doing well right now,’’ he said. ‘‘Chaos is good for everyone’s business.’’
Lewandowski, I soon learned, hadn’t really left the swamp. He had merely receded into the nebulous ranks of Washington’s unregistered lobbyists. In July, he founded a new firm, Lewandowski Strategic Advisors. He offered clients ‘‘strategic advice and counsel,’’ according to a copy of one contract I obtained, and had picked up at least one client from Avenue, the Ohio payday lender. He was back on TV more and more, energetically defending Trump and plumping for various private interests. At one point, I got a tip that he had been spotted in Taipei, Taiwan. He wouldn’t tell me what he was doing there, or for whom he was working — ‘‘I’m just a private citizen,’’ he texted — but weeks later, he tweeted about the Trump administration’s decision to approve a $1.42 billion arms sale to the country. He hadn’t yet landed that White House job, but he was in the West Wing often, and he had a new Twitter avatar: a picture of himself standing on the stairs to Air Force One. Newt Gingrich’s publisher had bought Lewandowski’s Trump book, and by the end of the summer, he had added yet another gig, joining Trump’s official super PAC, American First Action. Lewandowski had absorbed the swamp’s most essential trait: adaptability.
Not long ago, Stryk opened a proper Washington office, right in Georgetown, a stone’s throw from the Four Seasons. The new space was undecorated and unmarked, and there wasn’t much there yet but a couple of laptops. But Stryk was buoyant. He was about to sign two more big foreign lobbying clients, the governments of Afghanistan and Kenya, along with a pharmaceutical firm. Saudi Arabia had canceled its S.P.G. contract after Stryk’s client, the crown prince, was deposed in a palace reshuffle, and New Zealand’s foreign ministry had decided that its embassy no longer needed Stryk’s services. But in Stryk’s view, these were just hiccups. Competitors around town — big firms that had never given him the time of day — were starting to ask around about S.P.G., wondering who they were and how they were getting so much business.
In about a month, Trump’s ham-handed defense of white nationalists and white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville would prompt most of the chief executives serving on White House advisory councils to quit in protest. It would cost the chief executives something, losing their face time with this impressionable, transactional president — and their loss would be K Street’s gain. Those same companies would now just rely more on their lobbyists, or on the trade associations they belonged to, to drive their agendas.
But as we sat down in his new conference room, Stryk was already looking beyond the Beltway. He saw Trump’s disruption spreading beyond Washington, to foreign capitals and overseas markets. The chaos in Trump’s government was creating a vacuum abroad, one that entrepreneurs like Stryk could fill with deal-making and private diplomacy. ‘‘I want to grow a business that’s 200 million a year,’’ Stryk told me. ‘‘You’re not going to get that arranging dinners in Washington.’’
The new contracts with Afghanistan and Kenya, Stryk explained, were prototypes for the kind of business he wanted to do, an escape from the washing machine. The Afghans and the Kenyans didn’t just want help with the Trump administration. They wanted help with everything: attracting American investment, troubleshooting problems in other foreign capitals, finding companies that could build them roads or manage their health care records.
So recently, Stryk had begun pitching investors on a new venture: a $5 billion private-equity fund that would specialize in infrastructure and procurement. One side of the business, the lobbying, would identify government customers abroad; the other side would invest in companies that could deliver what those governments needed. Secure voting systems, border-security hardware — the opportunities were limitless. ‘‘It is our job, as conservatives and capitalists, to take the chaos and do with it what we can,’’ Stryk said. ‘‘Our goal is to take an environment that was created by the president and use it to —’’ He paused for a second, thinking. ‘‘To do some good.’’