Corporate Lobbyists Aim to Steer Trump Away From Tariffs

Negotiations. Broken deals. Retaliatory tariffs. Repeat.

Caught in the cycle of the on-and-off U.S.-China trade tension, some of the nation’s corporate giants are hiring an army of lobbyists with close ties to the Trump administration to steer it away from business-hurting high tariffs. They’re also trying to influence Congress as it seeks ways to restrain the president’s power to declare tariffs based on national security concerns.

Amazon.com Inc., the world’s largest online retailer, is likely to suffer losses if the U.S.-China tariff war continues to escalate. The company agreed to pay more to some of its vendors on products impacted by the tariffs, and may have to raise prices on Chinese exports to the U.S. to mitigate repercussions of the trade war.

Although Amazon is tight-lipped about its stance on the tension between the U.S. and China, it has spent a fortune lobbying on trade and tariff-related issues this year. The company is a member of the Internet Association trade group, which signed a letter in June urging the Trump administration to end the trade war with China.

The retail giant has paid Trump-tied lobbying firm Ballard Partners $140,000 this year to influence a handful of government agencies. The firm was founded by Trump fundraiser Brian Ballard, who was dubbed “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington” last year after his firm took in prominent clients such as General Motors and British American Tobacco.

With its rich connections to the White House and “revolving-door” lobbyists who previously held government positions, Ballard Partners made $9.8 million in 2017 and $18.3 million in 2018. Dozens of clients paid the firm $8.9 million this year to lobby on an array of issues.

Apart from Amazon, Ballard Partners is also lobbying for other businesses held hostage by Trump’s tariff policies. The firm is representing 10 clients on trade or tariff-related issues this year, ranging from the world’s largest cruise line Carnival Corp. to the American Kitchen Cabinet Alliance, which said it lost at least $2 billion to the U.S.-China trade war and filed a lawsuit against China in March accusing the country of unfair trading.

Lobbying groups represented 1,300 clients on trade last year, a historic high since 1998. As the U.S.-China relationship intensifies, 1,209 clients are spending on trade lobbying so far this year.

Global steel manufacturer Outokumpu Stainless USA paid Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck $240,000 this year to lobby on trade. The firm, representing vast interests both at home and abroad, lobbied on behalf of several foreign governments last year, including Saudi Arabia, India and Mexico.

Marc Lampkin, a major Trump fundraiser who serves as the lobbying firm’s executive committee member, maxed out contributions to Trump this year. More than 65 percent of the firm’s registered lobbyists are former government employees.

Connections with the White House helped the lobbying powerhouse secure $18.9 million of contracts this year lobbying for deep-pocketed clients such as Purdue Pharma and Starbucks. Brownstein Hyatt is also lobbying on trade issues for Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, a Chinese tech company blacklisted by the U.S. last year over national security concerns.

The National Fisheries Institute, which said tariffs would hurt the U.S.-China relationship and therefore the country’s seafood import and export market, paid Miller Strategies and Holland & Knight a total of $140,000 this year to lobby on trade and tariff.

Miller Strategies CEO Jeff Miller raised more than $1 million between April and June for the president’s joint fundraising committee Trump Victory, which brought in $37.3 million and transferred millions to Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee. Miller’s firm, which is staffed with multiple former White House aides, has brought in major clients such as General Electric.

Holland & Knight hired Scott Mason as its senior policy advisor after he helped Trump win the 2016 election as the campaign’s director of congressional relations. The company has now raked in $11.7 million from its clients this year.

Lobbyists are also eyeing Congress, which is considering two major bills to curtail the president’s ability to impose tariffs. But few of those lobbyists hired by industry have ties to the Trump administration.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) proposed retroactive legislation that would require congressional approval before the president imposes any tariffs. It also would transfer the authority to investigate the effect of tariffs on national security from the Commerce Department to the Defense Department.

Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) bill, on the other hand, would allow Congress to reject the president’s decisions on tariffs.

Robert Lawrence, a professor of international trade and investment at Harvard Kennedy School, said the Trump administration’s behavior reflects “the broadest possible way” to interpret his constitutional power on tariffs, which was delegated by the Congress.

“The Congress could always take it back if it wanted to,” Lawrence said.

Toomey’s bill appeals to the auto industry, as multiple industry giants hired lobbyists to support the legislation. Auto manufacturers are worried that tariffs would inhibit their ability to export to China. U.S. carmakers exported nearly 164,000 vehicles to China last year, according to the Commerce Department.

The pro-business anti-tariff U.S. Chamber of Commerce, employing revolving-door lobbyists, is also trying to sway Congress to approve Toomey’s bill.

The legislation also drew attention from two influential conservative groups, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. Americans for Prosperity publicly announced its support for the legislation, and FreedomWorks said in June that it was pleased to see Trump calling off his tariff threats on Mexico.