(Bloomberg) -- The U.S.’s tough trade stance has fueled a lobbying blitz, yet seasoned Washington hands are finding that their old playbooks are of little use in talking the Trump administration out of imposing a broad range of tariffs.
Registrations to lobby on trade issues have surged since President Donald Trump took office. But conventional influence tactics employed by K Street veterans, such as cajoling congressional leaders to pressure the White House, have proven less effective under Trump, according to more than a dozen lobbyists.
That’s due in part to the president’s impulsive, go-it-alone style, which often cuts out lawmakers and leaves few paths to his decision makers. Lobbyists said they’re frustrated and searching for other ways to reach the decider-in-chief.
“No one knows the answer, to be honest,” said Gary Horlick, a Washington trade lawyer. “I’ve been in meetings that normally would have been, ‘You take chairman so-and-so, I’ll work on ranking member such-and-such,’ and now the meetings are, ‘What do we think Trump might be interested in’ -- not intellectually, but like, ‘What will he see?”’
Trump entered the White House vowing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and has pursued a series of shifts and changes on trade, bringing more work for lobbyists.
Concern on K Street
Lobbying registrations on trade issues during the first quarter were the second-highest since 2010, behind only the first quarter of 2017, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis. There also were 257 activity filings in the first three months of 2018 from 220 companies and associations that identified tariff cases as a lobbying issue.
Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in March on grounds of protecting national security, even though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and industry groups urged him not to pursue them because of the threat of a trade war.
The president also is moving ahead with duties on $34 billion in Chinese goods that will take effect July 6, in response to allegations of intellectual property theft, with the threat of tariffs on billions more if China retaliates as promised. That’s despite overwhelming opposition to duties from the business community, including a coordinated effort by a coalition of more than 100 trade groups, and jitters in the U.S. stock market whenever the tariff saber is rattled.
Ferris Bueller & Friends
The key administration players on trade are Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, said Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader. He lobbies for Squire Patton Boggs LP on behalf of clients including the Solar Energy Industries Association and NLMK USA, which is seeking an exclusion from steel import tariffs.
But while lobbyists are still pursuing meetings with the usual targets, reaching Trump’s inner circle doesn’t always work, because he’s been willing to overrule aides -- as when the White House announced on May 29 the duties on Chinese goods were proceeding, only days after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they were “on hold.”
“There’s no question that the president has his hand on all these trade moves and activities,” Lott said, adding that trade is something that Trump “has strong feelings” about.
Some lobbyists have turned to the media to convey their message.
The president is known to regularly watch the morning news show “Fox & Friends,” and the National Retail Federation ran a commercial on the program in May, hoping that he’d see it, said David French, the group’s senior vice president for government relations. The ad featured actor and economist Ben Stein, reprising his role as the economics teacher from the 1986 comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” arguing that duties are “B-A-D Economics.”
Consumer Technology Association President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Shapiro went on Fox Business Network to try to influence the White House, and the group has tried approaches that include a digital campaign, which generated more than 1,300 comments to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and 6,700 emails to state and federal elected officials.
“The best thing we can all do is just try every avenue and eventually something, hopefully, will stick,” said Sage Chandler, the group’s vice president for international trade.
The U.S. Chamber released a new analysis Monday in its efforts to oppose Trump’s tariffs showing how retaliatory duties on about $75 billion in U.S. exports from China and other counties as of this week will affect each state. Michigan, for example, which helped deliver the presidency to Trump, has more than $2.3 billion in automobiles and other products subject to tariffs, the chamber’s analysis shows.
“The administration is threatening to undermine the economic progress it worked so hard to achieve,” President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue said in a statement. “It’s time to reverse course and adopt smarter, more effective approaches for addressing trade concerns with commercial partners.”
Some lobbyists said they even craft tweets on trade-related issues in Trump’s Twitter style, in hopes they’ll reach the president.
One of the biggest adjustments for lobbyists with Trump compared with previous presidents is that while actions by other administrations were taken at face value, what Trump says and does may just be meant as leverage, said Frank Samolis, partner and co-chairman of the International Trade Group at Squire Patton Boggs. That’s made it a challenge to interpret Trump for clients making long-term investment decisions, he said.
“It certainly is a new world with Trump,” Samolis said. “People that are used to traditional trade lobbying are forced to recalibrate.”
Lobbyists also fear that political considerations -- like the desire to appear tough on trading partners -- might drive decisions more than economics, one lobbyist said. And Trump is seen as a wild card who’s as likely to send policy makers back to the drawing board if he doesn’t like their advice as he is to double or triple down on measures he approves.
The administration has listened as companies and business groups sought exclusions from the metal tariffs and to have products added to or removed from the list of Chinese imports targeted for duties, said Ron Sorini, a trade lobbyist and former chief textile negotiator at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. His clients include Vista Outdoor Inc. and Newell Brands Inc., which had goods removed from the duty list.
But Sorini said he tells his clients to assume tariffs will be imposed and hope for a “pleasant surprise,” and he also doesn’t “promise anyone we’re going to get directly in front of President Trump.”
Nobody’s quite figured how to best influence an unpredictable president, said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, a Washington think tank, who’s written about lobbying.
“A lot of companies are struggling to figure out, how do you convince this guy?” Drutman said. “He seems to be -- ‘whimsical’ would be a generous word, ‘capricious,’ ‘mercurial’ would probably be more appropriate -- and there’s really no playbook.”
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