The Real ‘Deep State’


On March 18, news broke that Donald Trump intended to restore the disgraced lobbyist Paul Manafort to the ranks of his campaign advisers. In any other moral universe, this would have been an unimaginable rehabilitation. Back in 2016, as revelations about Manafort’s work on behalf of pro-Kremlin politicians in Ukraine began appearing in the press, even Trump considered him a figure so toxic that he forced him to resign as chair of his campaign. Two years later, Manafort was locked up in federal prison on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, among other transgressions. His was one of the most precipitous falls in the history of Washington.

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But at this stage in that history, it’s not remotely shocking to learn that the revolving door continues to turn. By the end of Trump’s term, Manafort had already won a presidential pardon. His unwillingness to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation had earned him Trump’s unstinting admiration: “Such respect for a brave man,” he tweeted. Now it seemed that Manafort’s loyalty would be rewarded with the lobbyist’s most valuable tool: the perception of access, at an opportune moment.

In early May, under growing media scrutiny for international consulting work that he’d reportedly been involved in after his pardon, Manafort said that he would “stick to the sidelines,” playing a less visible role in supporting Trump. (He’d recently been in Milwaukee, part of meetings about this summer’s Republican National Convention programming.) But if Trump wins the election, Manafort won’t need 2024 campaign work officially on his résumé to convince corporations and foreign regimes that he can bend U.S. policy on their behalf—­and he and his ilk will be able to follow through on such pledges with unimpeded ease. A second Trump term would mark the culmination of the story chronicled by the brothers Luke and Brody Mullins, a pair of energetic reporters, in their absorbing new book, The Wolves of K Street: The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government.

As Trump dreams about governing a second time, he and his inner circle have declared their intention to purge what they call the “deep state”: the civil service that they regard as one of the greatest obstacles to the realization of Trump’s agenda. What they don’t say is that the definition of the deep state—an entrenched force that wields power regardless of the administration in the White House—now fits the business of lobbying better than it does the faceless bureaucracy. This is the deep state, should Trump emerge the victor in the fall, that stands to achieve near-total domination of public power.

Lobbying, like Hollywood and Silicon Valley, is a quintessentially American industry. The sector took root along the K Street corridor of gleaming glass-and-steel buildings in downtown D.C. during the 1970s. Though accurately capturing the scale of its growth is hard, a study by George Mason University’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute reported that, in 2016, the “advocacy cluster” employed more than 117,000 workers in metropolitan Washington (that’s more than the population of Manchester, New Hampshire). In theory, lobbying is a constitutionally protected form of redressing grievances. Businesses have every right to argue their case in front of government officials whose policies affect their industries. In practice, lobbying has become a pernicious force in national life, courtesy of corporate America, which hugely outspends other constituencies—­labor unions, consumer and environmental groups—­on an enterprise now dedicated to honing ever more sophisticated methods of shaping public opinion in service of its own ends.

The forerunners of the modern lobbyist were Tommy “The Cork” Corcoran, a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust, and Clark Clifford, who ran President Harry Truman’s poker games. Both men left jobs in government to become freelance fixers, working on behalf of corporate behemoths (the United Fruit Company, for example, and General Electric). Mystique was essential to their method. Corcoran kept his name out of the phone book and off his office door. If a company was bothered by a nettlesome bureaucrat—­­or wanted help overthrowing a hostile Central American government—they were the men ready to pick up the phone and make it so.

But Corcoran and Clifford were anomalous figures. In the late ’60s, only about 60 registered lobbyists were working in Washington. Most businesses, during the decades of postwar prosperity, didn’t see the point in hiring that sort of help. Management was at peace with labor. Corporations paid their taxes, while reaping ample profits. Then along came Ralph Nader, a young Harvard Law School graduate who ignited the modern consumer movement. By dint of his fervent advocacy, he managed to rally Congress to pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which led auto­makers to install headrests and shatter-resistant windshields. Nader, a scrappy upstart, single-handedly outmaneuvered the great General Motors.

Slow to register an emerging threat, corporate America sat complacently on the sidelines while an expansive new regulatory state emerged, posing a potential obstacle to business imperatives: The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, followed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration the next year, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972. Meanwhile, in 1971, a lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, named Lewis Powell urged a counterrevolution, writing a memo that called on the corporate world to build the infrastructure that would cultivate pro-business intellectuals and amass political power to defend the free market. Later that year, Richard Nixon named him to the Supreme Court.

A figure from outside the conservative orbit became the ground commander of the corporate cause in the capital. Tommy Boggs was the son of the legendary Hale Boggs, a Democratic congressman from Louisiana. The Great Society was, in no small measure, Hale’s legislative handiwork, and Washington was in Tommy’s blood. (As a boy, he ran House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s private elevator in the Capitol.) He saw how he could become a successor to Corcoran and Clifford, but on a far grander scale. After a failed run for Congress in 1970, he devoted himself to expanding the lobbying firm Patton Boggs.

Boggs mobilized a grand corporate alliance (including television networks, advertising agencies, and food conglomerates) to roll back the liberal state—and then ferociously used his connections on his clients’ behalf. M&M’s and Milky Way (he was working for the Mars candy company) were among the beneficiaries of a major victory. Jimmy Carter’s Federal Trade Commission had threatened to regulate the advertising of candy and sugar-heavy cereals directed at kids. Boggs sent the deputy editor of The Washington Post’s editorial page, Meg Greenfield, material about the horrors of this regulation. The newspaper then published an editorial with the memorable headline “The FTC as National Nanny.” Senators thundered against the absurdity of the new vigilance. The FTC abandoned its plans.

Boggs ignited not just a revolution in American government, but a cultural transformation of Washington. Before his ascent, patricians with boarding-school pedigrees sat atop the city’s social hierarchy, disdainful of pecuniary interests and the ostentatious flaunting of wealth. Boggs, very highly paid to work his wonders, rubbed his success in Washington’s face. He would cruise around town in one of the firm’s fleet of luxury cars with a brick-size mobile phone plastered to his face, a cigar dangling from his mouth.

The story that unfolds in The Wolves of K Street features an ironic twist: Liberal activists figured out how to mobilize the public to care about important issues and how to inspire them to become democratically engaged. K Street fixers saw this success, then adapted the tactics to serve the interests of corporations. In the Mullinses’ narrative, this evolution found its embodiment in Tony Podesta. An activist who came of age during the anti-war movement of the 1960s and a veteran of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, Podesta made his name running the TV producer Norman Lear’s group People for the American Way, a progressive counterweight to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. In 1987, Podesta helped rally the left to sink Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee.

Not long after, Podesta left the world of public-interest advocacy and began to sell his expertise—­at first primarily to liberal groups, then almost exclusively to businesses. Using the techniques he learned while working with Lear, he specialized in deploying celebrity figures to influence public attitudes, counting on citizen sentiment to in turn sway politicians. To block the FDA from regulating vitamins in 1993 (his client was a group of dietary-supplement manufacturers), he cut an ad with the actor Mel Gibson that depicted a SWAT team busting him at home for possessing vitamin C. “Call the U.S. Senate and tell them that you want to take your vitamins in peace,” Gibson said in a voice-over.

With stunning speed, Podesta—a bon vivant who went on to amass one of Washington’s most impressive private collections of contemporary art—had gone from excelling in impassioned advocacy to becoming promiscuous in his choice of client. To fund his lifestyle, the Mullinses write, he helped Lockheed Martin win approval of the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, even though the Indian government, another client of the Podesta Group, opposed the deal. He represented the tire manufacturer Michelin and its competitor Pirelli. Over the objections of his staff, he joined forces with Paul Manafort to polish the image of Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt pro-Kremlin politician who ruled Ukraine until a revolution ousted him in 2014.

As K Street boomed, the Mullinses show, its denizens remade American life well beyond Washington culture. They report that the firm Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, also a central player in their book, aided the Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch in overcoming regulatory obstacles and extending his corrosive media empire in the United States. In the ’80s, the firm became masters at deregulating industries and securing tax breaks for the powerful—$130 million for Bethlehem Steel, $58 million for Chrysler, $38 million for Johnson & Johnson—helping to usher in an age of corporate impunity and gaping inequality.

The Wolves of K Street is full of cautionary tales about the normalization of corruption. Revolving-door practices—leaving government jobs and parlaying insider connections into lucrative lobbying work—became part of the system. Meanwhile, the culture fueled fraudulent self-aggrandizing of the sort on lurid display in the sad case of a relatively fringe figure named Evan Morris. A kid from Queens who first arrived in town as a college intern in the Clinton White House, he quickly grasped that K Street represented the city’s best path to power and wealth. He scored a coveted job at Tommy Boggs’s firm while in law school, arriving just as lobbyists became essential cogs in a whole new realm: the machinery of electioneering.

The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002—campaign-finance legislation intended to wean the political system off big donors—prevented corporations and individuals from writing massive checks to political parties. Unable to rely as heavily on big donors, campaigns were happy to outsource to lobbyists the arduous job of rounding up smaller contributions from the wealthy: Lobbyists became “bundlers,” in fundraising parlance. As a 20-something, Morris proved to be one of the Democratic Party’s most exuberant solicitors, promising donors VIP access to events that he couldn’t provide, or intimating that he was asking on behalf of Boggs himself, which he wasn’t. Despite his relative inexperience, he managed to schmooze with the likes of Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton.

He went on to work for Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, and hatched a kind of campaign that he described as “black ops.” Amid the bird-flu outbreak of 2005, the Mullinses write, he began urging the government to stockpile the antiviral medication that Roche produced. He hired consultants to promote news stories that stoked public panic about the bird flu. He compiled studies touting the benefits of the drug, including some written by people who had at one point received money from Roche. The government bought more than $1 billion worth of the antiviral.

Morris’s job was to bend perception—and he also tried to bend the way that Washington perceived him. In 2009, he was hired to head the Washington office of Genentech, a Roche subsidiary. He became relentlessly acquisitive: three Porsches, multiple Cartiers and Rolexes, humidors filled with the finest cigars. Apparently, many of Morris’s extravagant purchases were bought with Genentech’s money, including a condo in San Francisco and a GMC Yukon.

Such a brazen scheme didn’t escape his superiors’ notice. While being presented by investigators with damning evidence of his malfeasance, Morris left the room to take a bathroom break and never returned. That afternoon, he went to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia, which he had paid a $150,000 initiation fee to join. That night, he retreated to a quiet corner of the club grounds and shot himself with a Smith & Wesson revolver. He was 38.

Yet such downfall narratives feel strangely dissonant. Although a handful of lobbyists may suffer a dramatic tumble from grace, the industry itself does nothing but boom. Each time a new reform surfaces, aimed at curtailing K Street’s power, influence peddlers figure out how to exploit the rules for greater influence and profit. Although Trump promised to drain this swamp, the swamp flourished. From 2016 to 2018, spending on K Street increased 9 percent, rising to $3.5 billion.

Washington lobbying firms have ballooned into conglomerates, resembling the multinational corporations that hire them. K Street currently consists of data analysts, pollsters, social-media mavens, crisis managers, grassroots organizers. Lobbying firms are one-stop shops for manipulating opinion—and are experts at image management, including their own: Their employees’ business cards identify them as “consultants” and “strategists,” now that everyone associates lobbying with sleaze.

Lobbying has disguised itself so well that it is often barely visible even to savvy Washington insiders. The Mullinses tell the story of Jim Courtovich, the head of a boutique public-relations firm and a close collaborator of Evan Morris’s. Courtovich’s business plan featured splashy parties that attracted top journalists and other prominent figures with whom he hoped to trade favors. Mingling with the media, the Mullinses write, Courtovich encouraged stories that might help his clients; in one case they cite, the goal was to damage a Saudi client’s rival. Starting in the fall of 2015, many such gatherings were hosted at a house his firm owned on Capitol Hill; presumably, the reporters who attended them had no idea that Saudi investors had financed the purchase of the building. In 2016, the authors note, Courtovich began working for the Saudi-government official who would later allegedly orchestrate the murder of The Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, a colleague of the journalists he assiduously cultivated.

As lobbying has matured, it has grown ever more adept at turning government into a profit center for its clients. Even Big Tech, which once treated Washington with disdainful detachment, seems to have felt the irresistible, lobbyist-enabled pull of chunky contracts with the feds. Such possibilities were part of the pitch to Amazon, for example, to erect a second corporate headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia, enticed by the prospect of pursuing multibillion-dollar contracts with the likes of the CIA and the Pentagon. (Amazon has said that political considerations played no part in the company’s decision.)

For eager beneficiaries of government largesse—not to mention for their equally wolfish facilitators—a second Trump administration would represent a bonanza, unprecedented in the history of K Street. Trump’s plan to overturn a bureaucratic ethos that has prevailed since the late 19th century—­according to which good government requires disinterested experts, more loyal to the principles of public stewardship than to any politician—opens the way to installing cronies who will serve as handmaidens of K Street. The civil service, however beleaguered, has acted as an imperfect bulwark against the assault of corporate interests. Its replacement would be something close to the opposite. The hacks recruited to populate government departments will be primed to fulfill the desires of campaign donors and those who pay tribute to the president; they will trade favors with lobbyists who dangle the prospect of future employment in front of them. This new coterie of bureaucrats would wreck the competence of the administrative state—and the wolves of K Street will feast on the carcass of responsible governance.


This article appears in the July/August 2024 print edition with the headline “The Industry That Ate America.”

original
The Wolves of K Street: The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government

By Brody Mullins and Luke Mullins


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