When Brian Ballard signed the lease last year for an office on the second floor of the Homer Building, a downtown Washington edifice that’s home to a number of lobbying firms, he promised himself he would stay in the space for five years. He lasted one. In February, his firm, Ballard Partners, moved into a bigger office on the fourth floor to accommodate the new lobbyists Ballard has hired since the election of one of his former clients, President Donald Trump.
At the firm’s first staff meeting in the new offices, Ballard and five of his Washington lobbyists sat in new leather chairs around a small conference table, with Ballard at the head. Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida whom Ballard hired last year, phoned in from Paris with an update on the firm’s work for the Turkish government. Jamie Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, called from Brussels and updated Ballard on a meeting he’d had with Moise Katumbi, an exiled opposition leader from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who’s a client.
“You’ll be happy to hear that we signed the Maldives today,” Syl Lukis, another Ballard lobbyist, told Rubin.
“Let’s fire away quickly on Kosovo and Turkey,” Ballard said. (The government of Kosovo is another Ballard client.)
Other Ballard lobbyists gave updates on their meetings with Trump administration officials and other work on behalf of the dozens of clients they represent in Washington, including Amazon, Dish Network, Uber, Pernod Ricard (the makers of Jameson whiskey and Absolut vodka) and Trulieve (a Florida-based medical marijuana company). Rebecca Benn, a former congressional staffer Ballard hired last year, updated Ballard and another lobbyist, Susie Wiles, on a meeting she’d set up for a client. “They were very, very happy — thank you, Susie — for the meeting at the White House last week,” Benn said. “It went very, very well.”
Ballard is a veteran Florida lobbyist who’s been in Washington for barely a year — the blink of an eye in an industry in which many of the top practitioners have spent decades inside the Beltway. But Ballard is closer to the president than perhaps any other lobbyist in town. He’s parlayed that relationship into a booming business helping clients get their way with the Trump administration — and his clients and even some of his rivals say his firm has a better grasp of what’s going on in the West Wing than almost anyone else on K Street. Ballard was one of the top fundraisers in the country for Trump’s campaign and continues to raise millions for his reelection campaign. Wiles, one of his top lieutenants, ran Trump’s campaign in Florida and delivered the nation’s biggest swing state to the president.
Ballard’s relationship with Trump has helped him solve a lucrative puzzle that has frustrated more established players. For all of the president’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric, the new administration has given corporate America and its lobbyists the opportunity to revive dreams of tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and rule changes that were mothballed during the Obama administration. But Trump also presents a challenge for the influence business — a White House in which key positions at least initially were as likely to be staffed by Trump loyalists as by old Washington hands with ties to K Street. Ballard has helped to bridge the gap. He’s a Trump-friendly out-of-towner who can connect with the establishment — he is a close ally of Senator Marco Rubio as well as Charlie Crist, the former centrist Republican governor of Florida who is now a Democratic congressman — and make corporate clients comfortable.
Ballard isn’t the only person in Trump’s orbit who decided to try his or her luck in Washington. Campaign veterans from Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s fired-but-never-forgotten campaign manager, on down have flocked to “the swamp” to lobby the administration — or, in Lewandowski’s case, to offer clients a glimpse into Trump’s thought process without actually registering to lobby. But Ballard appears to have landed the biggest fish. He has signed more than 60 clients since setting up shop in Washington after Trump’s inauguration, including blue-chip companies like American Airlines and Sprint. Those clients paid Ballard nearly $10 million last year for help navigating Trump’s first year in office. (Those numbers don’t include the $3.1 million the firm says it brought in representing foreign clients such as Turkey and the Dominican Republic.)
“He’s the only guy that’s done it,” said Robert Stryk, a lobbyist who runs in the same circles as some former Trump campaign hands and moved to Washington himself after the election. (Stryk’s company, SPG, bills itself as a “private diplomacy” firm rather than a traditional lobbying shop.)
Lobbyists at some of Washington’s established firms are quick to praise Ballard, but they also wonder how long his success can last, given the unique nature of the Trump administration. There are risks to building a shop around one principal’s relationships. The now-defunct firms of Ed Gillespie, who was one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists during George W. Bush’s administration, or Tony Podesta, who thrived under Barack Obama, might be regarded as cautionary tales. “Brian is building a strong Washington office, but the question is what happens when the circus leaves town,” one Republican lobbyist with close ties of his own to the administration told me.
Unlike Lewandowski, who hasn’t been able to resist boasting about his relationship with Trump as he hustles for clients, Ballard has taken pains to avoid the appearance of cashing in on his relationship with the president. He refuses to speak on the record about how often he talks with the president. But his clients say he’s been able to figure out how the Trump administration works in a way no one else has. For now, at least, it’s working for him.
Trump called Ballard in the days before he announced he would run for president. The two men have known each other for nearly 30 years. Ballard met Trump after picking up a copy of “The Art of the Deal” in the 1980s. He read the book and was so struck by it that he wrote Trump a letter telling him how much he’d enjoyed it. “I loved the idea of 15-minute meetings,” Ballard told me years later. “That’s one of the things in the book that still stands out to me.” He later told the Orlando Sentinel that he didn’t believe in meetings that lasted any longer. Trump wrote “this beautiful letter” back, Ballard says, and they kept in touch.
Ballard ended up working on and off as Trump’s Florida lobbyist, helping the Trump Organization negotiate state and local government when issues came up with Trump’s Doral golf club. A decade before Trump announced his presidential run, Ballard helped orchestrate a fundraiser in 2005 at Trump Tower in Manhattan for Crist’s campaign for Florida governor. “A friend told me about his record,” Trump told the St. Petersburg Times at the time, referring to Crist. “I checked him out. I met him, I liked him, and I said I could help.”
Ballard, like most of Florida’s Republican establishment, backed Jeb Bush in the primary, but when Trump called he offered to do what he could for his client. In September, as it became clear that Trump’s lead in the polls wasn’t going away, Ballard dispatched Wiles to New York to meet with Trump. Wiles was named the Trump campaign’s Florida co-chairwoman a few weeks later.
It took months for Ballard himself to come around to Trump. He jumped ship first to Rubio’s campaign and signed on with Trump only once it was clear he would be the Republican nominee. But once he was in, Ballard proved a valuable asset. Florida is home to lots of of wealthy Republican donors, and Ballard knew most of them after raising money for John McCain and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. Trump named Ballard his Florida finance chairman, and Ballard raised millions for his campaign. He spoke with Trump often and traveled on the campaign plane with him. The effort also put him in close touch with Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who would be tapped as White House chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, the campaign’s finance chairman, who’s now treasury secretary. Trump spent more time in Florida in the general election than in any other state. And “whenever we did an event in Florida I was there,” Ballard said.
Ballard watched the election returns come in with Lukis at an apartment he keeps in Manhattan. They didn’t know whether Trump would win — although Wiles later said she was confident he would pull it off — but they hoped he’d at least carry Florida. When it became clear Trump would become president, they high-fived and walked over to the victory party. The calls from clients started the next day. “To say they were freaking out is absolutely maybe even an understatement,” Wiles said.
Some Trump campaign hands almost immediately began trying to figure out whether they would be working in the new administration or lobbying it. Ballard, who was raising money for the inaugural committee, moved more slowly, waiting to open his Washington office until after the inauguration. (His firm began representing a half dozen federal clients before Trump took office, according to disclosure filings, but Ballard says he didn’t do any lobbying until later). Within three months of the inauguration, though, Ballard had signed two dozen clients, not just Amazon and American Airlines, but also Prudential and the GEO Group, a private prison operator.
Many early clients were companies Ballard already represented in Florida. Those clients beget more clients. “We started representing Dish [Network],” Ballard said. “They referred us to MGM, who referred us to H&R Block, who’s referring us to another client right now.” Signing high-profile corporate clients helped Ballard lobbyists get meetings with Trump administration officials, which helped him snag more clients. No one screened Ballard’s calls during his first months in Washington, so he ended up turning away some “squirrely” would-be clients himself: people who wanted to lobby the State Department to buy their patents, bitcoin speculators, people with “some really weird gold issues.” “If it’s anyone who says I want to pay you to set up a meeting with the president or whatever, we just say no out of hand,” Ballard said. “We end that conversation. We don’t do that stuff.”
Ballard isn’t the only Washington lobbyist who has a personal relationship with Trump. Dave Urban, a veteran lobbyist who helped Trump carry Pennsylvania, is also widely believed to be close to the president. But Ballard’s clients say many other Republican lobbyists in town haven’t figured out how to negotiate the Trump administration more than a year into his presidency.
“I’ll be very honest about this: I still don’t feel this town has caught up,” Richard Haselwood, a lobbyist for one of Ballard’s clients, the tobacco giant Reynolds American, said one night in February as he sipped a martini. Ballard, Wiles and I, along with a couple of other Ballard lobbyists, had met Haselwood for drinks at Mastro’s, a steakhouse across the street from Ballard’s Washington office (and three blocks east of the White House) that’s become enough of a haunt for Ballard lobbyists that they’ve started to learn the names of the waitresses.
Congressman Matt Gaetz dropped by the table, cocktail in hand. Gaetz, a baby-faced freshman from Florida, is closer to Trump than most House Republicans. He’s flown on Air Force One and is a frequent presence defending Trump on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, which has gotten the president’s attention. Gaetz has bragged that Trump sometimes calls himwhen he gets off the air. But even Gaetz sometimes needs help from Ballard lobbyists to get what he wants from the West Wing. “Even as a friend of the president who speaks frequently with the president, sometimes I have to call Susie Wiles to get my way,” he said.
Haselwood was one of a number of lobbyists for Ballard’s Florida clients who urged him in the weeks after the election to consider setting up shop in Washington. Reynolds American, like other big companies, was struggling to figure out how to negotiate what would soon be Trump’s Washington. Haselwood recalled Ballard being mobbed at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Orlando the week after the election. “Everyone is down there,” he said. “No one knew what was going on. Brian came in and people were, like, rushing to him.”
Ballard has helped clients like Reynolds map out who’s really calling the shots in Trump’s administration, where aides and even Cabinet members can be influential one week and out of favor the next. “Brian jumped in and jumped in big, and I’m thrilled,” Haselwood added. “I’d feel naked without him.”
Ballard spent nearly two decades figuring out how to dine and golf with Florida’s governors without abusing his relationships with them. He told the St. Petersburg Times a decade ago that he avoided lobbying Crist unless the governor’s staffers were present. “I don’t sneak it in while we’re shooting the breeze,” Ballard told the paper. “It doesn’t work that way. It would be gross.”
He grew up in Delray Beach, Florida, one of six children raised by a single mother. He got his start in politics at 24, when he took time off from law school to work as a travel aide and driver to Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, a Republican waging a long-shot campaign for governor. When Martinez won, Ballard moved to Tallahassee to work for him and traded in his 1980 Toyota Tercel for a silver BMW. By the time the Orlando Sentinel profiled him in 1990, Ballard was the governor’s chief of staff and had just married Kathryn Smith, the daughter of Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, in what another newspaper called “Tallahassee’s wedding of the year.” (George Steinbrenner, a future Ballard client, was a guest.) The Sentinel profile recounted Ballard yukking it up on the phone with Jeb Bush — who was chairman of Martinez’s reelection campaign — and described him as the “brat-savant of Florida politics.”
Martinez lost reelection in 1990 to Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and Ballard stuck around Tallahassee as a lobbyist. It wasn’t an easy to time to start out as a Republican lobbyist: Democrats held majorities in both chambers of the Florida Legislature and the governorship. But Republicans won control of the Florida Senate in 1994 and took the House two years later. And in 1998, Ballard’s old pal Jeb Bush was elected governor.
A few weeks after the election, the Ledger of Lakeland, Florida, reported that Ballard’s firm — called Smith, Ballard, Bradshaw and Logan at the time — had something other Tallahassee lobbying firms “only wish they could claim: an undeniably special relationship with Bush that is being cautiously defended.” Ballard brashly told the paper his firm had no more access to Bush than anyone else. “Anyone who thinks that when they are hiring us they have secured some special niche in the administration is wrong and should save their money,” Ballard said. “Don’t hire us. Go somewhere else.”
Despite his protestations at the time, Ballard proved remarkably successful over the next two decades at cultivating friendships with Florida’s Republican governors. He was an early supporter of Crist’s successful campaign to succeed Bush. When Rick Scott, a former hospital executive, beat the candidate Ballard was backing in the Republican primary to replace Crist, Ballard hustled to win him over, raising enough money for Scott’s general-election campaign that Scott named him chairman of his inaugural committee after he won. Ballard also hired the woman who’d managed Scott’s dark-horse campaign: Wiles, who would help Trump win Florida six years later. Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican lobbyist in Florida who hired Ballard to work on the Martinez campaign three decades ago, said Ballard has had “private, mansion-dinner relationships with every governor of Florida since” Bush. (The two men remain friends even though Stipanovich claims to “hate Trump worse than a snake.”)
Ballard is 56, with a tanned face and slightly sandy brown hair. He splits his time between Tallahassee, New York and Washington these days, but he retains something of a Florida air about him. When I met him at his office one morning in January, he wore a blue suit, a bright white shirt open at the collar and loafers. Lobbyists who know Ballard in Florida say he can be intensely competitive, but in person he’s warm and laughs easily. Unlike many other Washington lobbyists, he doesn’t seem like he’s trying to ingratiate himself with you.
“I think the fastest way to get shut out is to start talking about who you can influence and who you can’t influence,” Lukis, a Ballard managing partner who moved to Washington after the election to open the new office, said over breakfast one morning at the Old Ebbitt Grill. “I don’t even like the word ‘influence.’ I’m not trying to influence anybody. What I’m trying to do is to have input into the ultimate decision-making process that’s being made regarding the issue that we’re working on. And I’d just as soon talk to a staffer than I would the secretary, because I think ultimately if you can get the staff to agree with you, 98 percent of the time you’re probably going to get the secretary to agree with you.”
If Ballard hadn’t helped to elect Trump, it’s easy to imagine he might be one of the many Republican lobbyists in Washington who aren’t enamored of the president. He’s raised money and professed admiration over the years for several Republicans who have been harsh Trump critics: Jeb Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney. He’s occasionally even given to Democrats, including his old friend Crist, who became an independent during his failed Senate campaign in 2010 and is now a Democratic congressman. “Brian is a fairly moderate Republican, I think I would say,” Crist said when I asked him what it was like to be on the other of the partisan divide from Ballard. “So it’s fine.” He laughed.
Ballard has taken criticism from Republicans who would have rather seen Hillary Clinton elected than Trump. It’s cost him friendships. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out late in the campaign, he said, “I can recall a very active Republican that I was trying to get to help at an event after that asking me if I was ashamed of myself.” No, not at all, he replied. “No one’s going to be fooled by electing Donald Trump,” he told me. “He is what he is.”
If he didn’t know Trump, he might have ended up as a Trump critic rather than a supporter, he told me. “But I know him,” he said.
Ballard’s relationship with Trump isn’t all that different from the bonds that hundreds if not thousands of lobbyists in Washington have with members of Congress they used to work for. Like Ballard, many lobbyists help sustain those relationships by giving money and hosting fundraisers for their old bosses’ reelection campaigns. The difference is that Ballard’s relationship is with the president of United States. Lobbyists and former campaign big shots such as Lewandowski had it particularly easy in the first months of the administration, before John Kelly replaced Priebus as chief of staff and cracked down on outside access to Trump. “You were walking in, you were having dinner,” said a lobbyist for one of Ballard’s clients, who estimated Ballard talks with Trump every few weeks. “It was like dealing with a Senate office or a small-time governor.”
Ballard won’t talk about what he does for his clients, for the most part. He made an exception for his work on behalf of Katumbi, the exiled Congolese opposition leader. Katumbi, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016 to avoid being thrown in prison by President Joseph Kabila, hired Ballard to help persuade the Trump administration to pressure Kabila to allow him to return. Ballard, Lukis and Katumbi met with a deputy to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in October before Haley traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haley forcefully called for the country to hold elections this year on her trip.
Not all of Ballard’s foreign clients are as sympathetic. Ballard signed a contract with the Turkish government worth $125,000 a month on May 11, days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security guards beat up peaceful protesters outside Turkey’s embassy, according to a Justice Department filing. Another filing shows Ballard met several times with administration officials on Turkey’s behalf, including Sean Cairncross, a senior adviser to the White House chief of staff, and Matt Mowers, a State Department official who worked on Trump’s campaign.