CLEVELAND — Corey Lewandowski is playing his Trump card.
The former campaign manager for President Donald Trump is raising money from speaking fees and strategic advising that looks a lot like lobbying.
Known for his “let Trump be Trump” approach before being fired for roughing up a reporter, Lewandowski remains close to the president and traveled with Trump last week to a rally in Youngstown, Ohio.
That keeps Lewandowski in the media spotlight, which in turn increases his appeal with private clients and aspiring politicians.
Trump and his associates have wrestled with their approach to the Washington influence industry. Although the president has promised to “drain the swamp,” he’s brought ex-lobbyists into his administration and seen those close to him — Lewandowski chief among them — trade their connections for money.
Lewandowski returned to Ohio on Thursday for a speech to the City Club in Cleveland and a fundraiser for a Republican congressman, Jim Renacci, who’s a gubernatorial candidate with ties to Trump. “The president is my friend,” he told the City Club audience.
But it’s Lewandowski’s relationship with a payday lender in Ohio that’s attracting the most attention.
The Associated Press reviewed a draft contract between his new firm and Community Choice Financial, based in Dublin, Ohio. The documents, first reported by The New York Times, show the company wanted to pay his firm $20,000 a month for advice and counsel. Lewandowski said the contract was “never executed.”
The lender has been a leader in the industry’s battles against government regulation, and in particular against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Last Sunday, Lewandowski suggested on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president fire Richard Cordray, the bureau’s director, because he is “all but running for governor in the state of Ohio and he’s sitting in federal office right now.”
Lewandowski denied having a client that wants to see Cordray fired. At his City Club appearance, an audience member demanded that Lewandowski say “yes or no” whether Community Choice Financial is employing him.
Instead of answering, Lewandowski said he doesn’t “make one dime” tied to Cordray losing a job. The nonresponse left audience members groaning. Later, he told reporters that Community Choice isn’t currently a client, though he said he gives “free advice, all the time,” to lots of people. He declined to name any of his clients.
Cordray is a Democrat and former Ohio attorney general and state treasurer. He hasn’t announced plans to run for governor
Neither Lewandowski nor his new firm, Lewandowski Strategic Advisors, is listed in any federal lobbying databases. Lewandowski has repeatedly said he won’t register as a lobbyist, and he parted ways with his original firm, Avenue Strategies, this spring when some of the people involved began a project to land foreign clients.
Barry Bennett, Lewandowski’s original partner at Avenue Strategies, said the two occasionally communicate. But it’s clear the split hasn’t gone entirely smoothly. For example, Community Choice Financial originally signed on to Avenue Strategies.
“They left when he left,” Bennett said. “And surprise, surprise, they seem to have landed back with him.”
Lewandowski has taken a similarly below-radar approach to politics. There’s no trace of any payments to Lewandowski in Renacci’s campaign finance reports. James Slepian, a spokesman for Renacci’s campaign, said Lewandowski isn’t working for the campaign.
Although Trump hasn’t officially endorsed Renacci, who was an early booster of Trump’s presidential bid, Vice President Mike Pence traveled with the congressman in late June and said, “I was with Jim Renacci before it was cool.” Pence’s kind words quickly made it into a Renacci fundraising appeal.
Renacci is one of four high-profile Republicans running to replace GOP Gov. John Kasich, who is term-limited and an outspoken Trump critic. The other GOP contenders are Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who’s backed by Kasich.
Lewandowski has experience in the Buckeye State.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was an administrative assistant to then-Rep. Bob Ney, who was sentenced to prison on corruption charges in 2007. Reached by phone on Wednesday, Ney said Lewandowski was well-connected in Ohio, with a sharp memory and hard work ethic.