As the horrors of the Trump administration’s policy of child separation at the border were becoming fully apparent, Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate and, more recently, absolutely-not-a-lobbyist for the healthcare industry, tweeted a somewhat optimistic sentiment: that for their roles in enacting such a vile policy, Trump officials would never work in This Town again.
This raises an interesting question. With as much animosity as the administration’s family separation policy has stirred up, has DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen unwittingly deprived herself of the chance to make the big bucks once she leaves?
Washington’s so-called “revolving door,” where former elected and appointed officials leave office and cash in working for the industries they used to regulate, has been revolving ever faster. (It spins in both directions, too.) So how toxic is too toxic for even a lobbying shop to hire? I don’t necessarily want to pick on Howard Dean here—it’s a reasonable question to ask after such a prolonged and high-profile battle over a clearly revolting policy—although we still should because he’s a massive hypocrite who has done all kinds of awful things for variously evil interests. In fact, Dean’s resume illustrates just how Nielsen might end up filling her days and her bank account once she inevitably leaves the White House.
Dean occupies a space known as “shadow lobbying,” which describes lobbying done outside the regulatory framework that requires lobbyists to register and report their activities. One of the most famous poster boys of this practice was Tom Daschle, who lost his Senate seat in 2004 and spent the next 12 years lobbying-but-not-lobbying for the healthcare industry under various euphemistic job titles—“strategic counsel,” for example—until he finally registered as a lobbyist in 2016.
As Dean has repeatedly stated, he isn’t a registered lobbyist. But it’s very easy to avoid those rules, and decisions made by the Obama administration—ostensibly to curb revolving door lobbying—actually only made this worse. For many advocacy professionals in D.C., whether they’re ex-administration officials or just regular ol’ lobbyists toiling in obscurity, there’s little downside to acting outside the reported lobbying system. As the Intercept reported in 2016, despite his repeated denials that he is a lobbyist:
Dentons’ director of communications, Bennett Kleinberg, wrote to us to say, “Howard Dean is a senior advisor with Dentons in our Public Policy and Regulation practice. However, he is not a registered lobbyist and does not lobby public officials on behalf of clients of the Firm.”
Since joining the lobbying industry, Dean has oddly argued on multiple occasions that he does “not lobby.” But he engages in virtually every lobbying activity imaginable, helping corporate interests reach out to lawmakers on legislation, advising them on political strategy, and using his credibility as a former liberal lion to build public support on behalf of his lobby firm clients.
Newt Gingrich, who was widely criticized in 2011 for acting as a lobbyist for various clients without registering, was hired last year by Dentons’ lobbying practice, where he works closely with Dean to consult with clients on political strategy. As Legal Times reported, the Dean-Gingrich team is now a selling point for Dentons as the “pair aims to become another Washington-based bipartisan tag team who can act as political soothsayers for whichever corporate clients call upon them.”
Even aside from those who do actively lobby but skirt the law in doing so, there’s an entire world of lobbying-adjacent activities that are enhanced by the relationships and insider knowledge government officials obtain while in office. Just look at what the DCI Group did in its campaign against Argentina, and the myriad other astroturf efforts that populate D.C.: public relations campaigns, internet ads, promoted tweets, real grassroots efforts, and secretive nonprofits.
Professor James Thurber, a political science professor at American University and a lobbying expert who served on the American Bar Association task force on lobbying reform, has advocated for expanding the definition of lobbying to include the whole spectrum of “advocacy” operations. It’s in this gray area where he thinks people like Nielsen will thrive.
“All these people will get jobs,” he told Splinter, but they “may not get jobs in the standard way”—that is, working as a registered lobbyist at a big-name firm or a big company like Amazon or Uber.
Beyond just Nielsen, Thurber said it’s “amazing how people forget about controversy in Washington these days.” Even Scott Pruitt, who finally bowed out as EPA chief on Thursday after months of scrutiny over his spending which sparked at least 13 federal investigations, will probably “end up getting a good job,” Thurber said: “People will take care of him” because the “industry owes him a lot.”
Other professionals in the lobbying industry agreed with his assessment. A lobbyist who runs a bipartisan firm in D.C., who spoke anonymously to allow him to speak freely, told Splinter that while Nielsen might not end up working for a household name corporation, “the influence-adjacent world is much bigger, much less transparent”—and that’s “exactly the route I would expect her to take.”
Even without being directly hired as a lobbyist or consultant by a big firm, “you can make a pretty nice life” in a less public-facing role, they said. The lobbyist also said there are “a whole host of companies that probably wouldn’t hesitate” to hire Nielsen—which would still more than pay the bills.
Another experienced lobbyist was less circumspect. Pat Griffin, a veteran Democratic lobbyist, said Nieslen would have no trouble getting hired after working for Trump. Griffin said he suspects if Trump disavowed Nielsen in some public way, that could pose problems for her, but if she’s able to go quietly, “She’ll do just fine in this perverted little world.” Relationships, such as with those “on the Hill, in the area she has some expertise,” trump all other considerations, he said.
Those relationships are vital, and they’re a huge factor—if not the factor—in why ex-administration officials get snapped up once they leave. After all, the field is often euphemistically called “government relations.” This was the point another lobbyist at one of the biggest bipartisan firms in Washington emphasized to me: that Nielsen’s employability might be “contingent upon how long [John] Kelly is chief of staff,” as her close relationship with Kelly “would give people a reason to reach out to her.” And even if she might be “a little radioactive” for a while, she won’t “necessarily [be] forever.”
Dunking on Howard Dean and his infinite wisdom aside, this is a reality worth driving home again and again: As much as this White House is Not Normal, so much about it, including many of the dirtiest aspects of it, are perfectly typical in DC. We might like to tell ourselves that after Trump leaves, things will go back to how they were and, by extension, the evil will be gone, like it was all just a bad dream. But repudiating political evil is not what’s normal in Washington, and it never was. What’s normal is to cultivate the ills that keep our political system oiled with money from special interests and our bills stuffed with giveaways to corporations to get your client the win they’re after.
Even if there isn’t a single lobbyist in town who thinks the child separation policy is a good idea—and I’d bet almost none of them do—it wouldn’t matter; it isn’t their job to trade in good ideas or to have opinions about what makes for humane policy. Their job is to get the best outcomes for the entity paying them. Money will always flow to whoever can most efficiently maximize returns.
For some person or company or interest out there, it’s very likely that person will be Kirstjen Nielsen, a proven liar who shows no signs of possessing a soul or a wisp of decency in her body. She might very well launch a highly publicized campaign to rehabilitate her image—No, I never really believed it, I tried to stop it, I’m one of the good ones, I was just following orders—or she might try to just keep her head down and sink back into the swamp. Either way, she’ll get hers, just as they always have. And they’ll keep doing it, until we make it more painful to do so than to be driven out, never to be seen again.