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The powerful lobbyist behind Kevin McCarthy

Feb. 3, 2023 Updated Fri., Feb. 3, 2023 at 8:31 p.m.

By Kenneth P. Vogel New York Times

WASHINGTON – As he waged his messy campaign to become House speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy turned to a longtime friend, Jeff Miller, to serve as a kind of field general.

Miller, his closest confidant, top fundraiser and sometimes enforcer, hosted a pasta dinner and strategy session for the McCarthy political team at his luxury condominium in Washington. He then set up shop in the speaker’s office in the Capitol for the week of the vote, working the phones to persuade holdouts, tamping down conservative criticism on social media and urging some donors to press for “yes” votes from members they had funded.

When McCarthy won, so did Miller, who in addition to his wide-ranging volunteer roles for his friend is one of Washington’s most prominent Republican lobbyists, representing a spectrum of blue-chip corporate clients with issues at stake in Washington.

Rarely has a lobbyist enjoyed the access to a House speaker that Miller has with McCarthy, R-Calif. As McCarthy has gained power, Miller’s prominent place in his orbit has drawn increased scrutiny from watchdog groups that track political influence as well as from conservatives who see him as an unaccountable power behind the throne whose presence is starkly at odds with their increasingly populist, anti-corporate message.

Miller’s clients include Apple, Anheuser-Busch, Dow Chemical, General Electric, the Wall Street giant Blackstone, Occidental Petroleum, the drugmaker trade group PhRMA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other companies – some of them girding for scrutiny from Republicans eager to take on what they see as anti-conservative bias among “woke” corporations.

Responding to a post on Twitter from a reporter who had spotted Miller headed into McCarthy’s office during the early rounds of the vote for speaker, when McCarthy was coming up short, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who was a leader of the opposition, tweeted, “McCarthy isn’t even speaker and the lobbyists are moving in!”

After McCarthy became speaker, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., confronted McCarthy on the House floor. He was furious, according to an ally of Buchanan, because he felt that Miller and McCarthy had quietly thrown their weight behind the successful rival bid for the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee by Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., with whom Miller is friendly.

An associate of Miller’s said he did not play any role in the battle over the Ways and Means chairmanship. But the perception among Republicans that he is already shaping the operations of McCarthy’s House majority is a telling indication of how Miller’s place at the intersection of power, money, influence and access has made him one of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in Washington.

Miller declined to be interviewed. But he said in a statement that he “worked hard with Speaker McCarthy’s team during the speaker’s race because he’s my friend” and because McCarthy “knows how to build consensus around an agenda and then how to implement it.”

Miller added, “I just want to be known as a guy who works hard for my clients and does right by my friends,” adding that “everything else is just noise.”

McCarthy also declined to be interviewed. In a statement, Drew Florio, a spokesperson for him, said the speaker and Miller are “lifelong friends,” and credited the lobbyist with playing “a key role in aiding Speaker McCarthy’s political fundraising operation,” while stressing that his efforts were “on a volunteer basis.”

But the blurriness of the lines between Miller’s lobbying and his support for McCarthy were underscored in the days after the speaker election. Miller helped organize three days of festivities to celebrate, including a gala dinner at which Miller took the stage to introduce McCarthy.

“Man, Kevin, I have waited a long time to say this: Ladies and gentlemen, the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy,” Miller told the audience of donors, corporate executives, members of Congress and other prominent Republicans, according to an attendee.

The following morning featured a breakfast for donors and freshman House Republicans held at the Washington offices of one of Miller’s lobbying clients – Altria, the tobacco and e-cigarette company. Since July 2017, Altria has donated nearly $1.4 million to a super PAC associated with McCarthy and paid $1.3 million to Miller’s firm.

Building influence

Miller, 48, met McCarthy, 58, in the early 1990s. Miller was a high school student, and McCarthy was a district staff member for the Bakersfield, California, area’s congressman.

After joining the Naval Reserves, Miller took a job with the county Republican Party, where he worked with McCarthy and began ascending the party ladder in California. He became a lobbyist, developing connections to major donors and politicians around the country, including Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Miller moved to Austin and helped Perry build out a political operation that became the foundation for a 2016 White House bid; Miller served as campaign manager. When Perry bowed out of the race, he and Miller threw their support to Donald Trump. After the election, Miller moved quickly to break into a Washington lobbying world that had been dominated by powerful firms with long track records and big names, but few connections to the incoming Trump administration.

Miller was a finance vice chair for Trump’s inauguration and helped guide Perry through the Senate confirmation process to become Trump’s energy secretary.

Within 13 months of Perry being sworn into office, Miller’s new firm, Miller Strategies, had registered to lobby for 24 clients – including energy interests for which he facilitated meetings with Perry – and collected nearly $3.4 million in lobbying fees. It was an impressive amount for a small new firm, but it was only the start.

Miller, who spends much of his time with his family in Austin, paid nearly $3 million for a two-bedroom condominium at CityCenterDC, a location favored by the Trump set, that he would turn into the nerve center of what would become one of the leading influence operations in town.

He began hosting fundraisers, donor dinners and gatherings that drew a rotating cast of Trump world operatives, McCarthy allies, journalists and other prominent figures, with a well-stocked bar inside and guests smoking cigars on an expansive private outdoor deck. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Perry were among his guests.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Miller helped raise about $15 million for Trump’s unsuccessful reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee in the run-up to the 2020 election. But he raised far more than that for other campaigns and committees, including those associated with Trump and McCarthy, according to people familiar with his efforts.

Miller said in a statement that he spends about half of his time making fundraising calls for various Republican candidates and groups “that I’m passionate about.”

Leveraging connections

In the fall of 2017, Broadcom – a microchip maker that was exploring major acquisitions that would need U.S. government approval – hired Miller Strategies to lobby the Trump White House and Congress.

Two days after Miller registered to represent the company, its chief executive, Hock E. Tan – who until then had only made a single federal political donation – gave $65,000 to political committees linked to McCarthy, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Two weeks later, thanks to Miller and his connections to Trump’s team, Tan was in the Oval Office, standing between Trump and McCarthy as cameras rolled, praising the president’s proposed corporate tax cuts and announcing Broadcom’s plan to return operations from Singapore to the United States. The relocation was seen partly as an effort to minimize potential U.S. government concerns about its planned acquisitions.

“Thanks to you, Mr. President, business conditions have steadily improved,” Tan said, as Miller stood unnoticed at the back of the room.

After journalists left the room, Trump thanked Miller for his fundraising assistance. “I hear you’re doing great work for us,” Trump said, according to a person who attended the event. “They say nobody raises money like you.”

About two weeks after the Oval Office event, Broadcom announced that it had finalized one of the acquisitions, having won approval from the U.S. government with assistance from Miller and his team. Broadcom’s larger acquisition – of rival chipmaker Qualcomm – was subsequently blocked by Trump, who cited national security concerns.

Still, at the time, the Oval Office appearance was a victory for Broadcom and Tan. And it had benefits for the Trump White House, which used the event to sell the tax cut proposal that McCarthy, then House majority leader, helped shepherd through Congress and onto the president’s desk for signing weeks later.

“That event was a perfect example of what makes Jeff so effective,” said Cliff Sims, a Trump White House aide who worked with Miller to arrange it. “He came with an idea that was helpful to what we were trying to accomplish, and his client ultimately benefited from it as well.”

Even as Miller established himself as one of the go-to lobbyists for influencing the Trump administration, he retained his close ties to McCarthy, with the congressman’s political and government roles sometimes intersecting with the lobbyist’s work.

Musk, the billionaire technology entrepreneur, has been a donor to McCarthy for more than a decade, and one of his companies – the rocket manufacturer and NASA contractor SpaceX – has operations in McCarthy’s hometown, Bakersfield, California.

In 2020, Miller Strategies registered to lobby for SpaceX and has been paid more than $300,000 by the company since then, according to lobbying filings. One of Miller’s lead lobbyists on the account, George Caram, had worked for McCarthy as a congressional aide partly on space travel issues.

Musk – who had been interviewed by McCarthy during a donor retreat organized by Miller in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last summer, and months later would acquire Twitter – declared his support last month for McCarthy’s bid to become speaker.

Miller has also taken on hardball political tasks for McCarthy.

As relations turned frosty last year between McCarthy and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., over her criticism of Trump, Miller quietly warned Republican political consultants to stop working for her reelection campaign or risk losing lucrative business from committees affiliated with McCarthy.

McCarthy would later officially endorse Cheney’s challenger in the Republican primary for her seat, Harriet Hageman, an unusual move for a congressional leader. It was followed weeks later by a fundraiser for Hageman at Miller’s Washington condo touting McCarthy as a “special guest,” according to an invitation obtained by Politico.

Tech tensions

By the final year of the Trump administration, Miller Strategies’ lobbying revenues had grown to nearly $14 million. In 2021, with President Joe Biden in office, the firm’s revenues dropped to less than $8 million.

But Miller’s connections to McCarthy’s conference remained valuable for some of the world’s biggest companies.

In June 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a package of antitrust legislation targeting tech giants including Amazon and Apple, which had retained Miller Strategies in 2019.

One bill was intended to loosen the control over the app marketplaces operated by Apple and Google. Another would have barred those platforms, as well as Amazon and Facebook, from giving preferential treatment to their products and services over those offered by competitors.

Miller lobbied House Republicans against the bills, using the access he had built through fundraising to urge lawmakers to take their names off the bills as co-sponsors – a bold ask.

At a lunch at the private Capitol Hill Club, Miller pulled aside one Republican co-sponsor for whom he had raised money, Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas.

“He and I got into it, but, I mean, we weren’t fighting or anything – we were just disagreeing,” said Gooden.

Gooden did not back down. But he said Miller is an effective lobbyist because “he’s a hustler” and “he was able to raise huge amounts of money for the Trump campaign, for House Republicans.” Miller “is constantly on the phone working to get Republicans elected. And if he’s not doing that, he’s working for his clients,” Gooden said.

During the fight over the antitrust bills, Miller sometimes seemed to be doing both things at once.

A few days after the bills were introduced, he stopped by a retreat he had organized for major donors to McCarthy’s political operation at the Hay-Adams Hotel, which featured a panel on the “growing threat of Big Tech censorship.” Miller had conversations there with at least two members of Congress in which he described the bills as government overreach that would empower Biden administration regulators and do nothing to mitigate the tech platforms’ stifling of conservatives, according to one attendee.

Less than two weeks after the retreat, McCarthy offered what his office called a “framework to stop the bias and check Big Tech,” which echoed Miller’s arguments.

But McCarthy’s efforts were not seen as a much of a threat to the tech companies.

Florio, the spokesperson for McCarthy, said in a statement that the framework was “the result of months of work between leaders of the conference, the House Judiciary Committee and the countless Americans whose free speech was silenced by Big Tech.”

Critics thought they detected Miller’s fingerprints. Fox News host Tucker Carlson asserted on his show, which is influential on the anti-corporate populist right, that Miller’s lobbying for Amazon and Apple was “one potential explanation” for McCarthy’s opposition to the antitrust bills.

Carlson said that Miller was “Kevin McCarthy’s closest adviser.”

“Are you shocked that Kevin McCarthy is doing what his corporate clients want him to do?” he added. “Maybe you shouldn’t be.”

The two bills considered most aggressive toward Miller’s clients were never brought up for votes on the floor of the House, as technology companies lobbied furiously against them across party lines in both the House and the Senate.

About two weeks before the midterm elections, Miller Strategies terminated its contract with Amazon‘s cloud computing arm before it was set to expire. Miller, a person familiar with his thinking said, did not like that his work for the company – a frequent target of tech critics across the political spectrum – was being wielded by detractors as a cudgel against McCarthy. Days later, Miller Strategies registered to lobby for more money for Oracle, which competes with Amazon’s cloud computing products and has top executives with ties to Republicans.

But Miller’s role as a lobbyist for Big Tech is showing signs of becoming a flash point in a Republican Party increasingly split between a traditional pro-business wing and a populist right that is especially eager to rein in the big social media platforms and other corporations perceived as being sympathetic to the left.

Last week, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., who had joined Gooden among the co-sponsors of the antitrust bills in 2021, was passed over as chair of the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, where he had been the top Republican last Congress. Instead, the subcommittee will be chaired by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who opposes government spending and intervention in the economy, while the full committee is chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a close McCarthy ally.

“Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan pretend like they’re conservative warriors against Big Tech, when in reality they’re doing Big Tech’s bidding by stopping bipartisan antitrust reforms that would hold Big Tech accountable,” said Mike Davis, a former Republican congressional lawyer who started a nonprofit group that pushes for antitrust enforcement.

McCarthy “cares about keeping the lobbyists in Washington happy,” Davis said last month on a podcast, highlighting Miller’s work for Amazon and Apple and calling him “the campaign manager for Kevin McCarthy’s race for speaker.”

But there is no sign that the criticism is hobbling Miller.

Miller’s firm has signed six new clients since the month before the midterm elections, including the Federation of American Hospitals and the PGA Tour. Miller Strategies announced last month that it had hired three new employees – including McCarthy’s political director, Stephen Ruppel – in anticipation of a surge in business.

And shortly thereafter, an invitation was sent out for a fundraising dinner next week honoring McCarthy, with ticket prices starting at $50,000 and proceeds going to his political operation. On the invitation, obtained by Punchbowl News, Miller’s name is listed above those of a raft of top Republican congressional leaders.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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