Fueling that rise, at least in part, are Esposito’s claims that he is uniquely positioned: a former Capitol Hill staffer who is close to centers of power in the Trump administration.
Esposito has “an open line of communication to the President of the United States” and is in “regular” contact with the president, Federal Advocates wrote in three contract bids reviewed by The Washington Post. The same proposals say Esposito worked with the president’s son Eric Trump and son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner on real estate deals. And the firm’s website calls Esposito “an integral part of the senior-most leadership” of the Republican National Committee.
Some of those very people, however, told The Post that Esposito’s claims are greatly embellished — or simply not true.
“I have no recollection of a Michael Esposito,” said Eric Trump. “Sounds like someone trying to trade off our name.”
“Jared Kushner does not know who Michael Esposito is,” an administration official said.
The RNC recently sent him a “cease and desist” letter.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham did not address Esposito’s claim of having access to the president but said she did not know him.
Esposito declined to be interviewed for this story. In emails, he stood by his claims. He said nondisclosure agreements prevent him from discussing details of his work with Kushner and the president’s son. Esposito provided a photo of himself with Trump next to an American flag at a 2017 fundraiser as evidence of his claim, in bids for local government contracts, to have a “strong personal and professional relationship with President Trump.”
Esposito — whose firm says it employs a half-dozen other lobbyists, some of whom have White House and congressional experience — told The Post his clients had scrutinized his record and would have detected any falsehoods. “It is preposterous to suggest that the clients we represent, including some of the largest in the world, have not done their due diligence in vetting the relationships and expertise of the entire Firm,” Esposito wrote.
Every presidency brings a fresh crop of lobbyists to the top of the Washington influence game — associates, friends and others who have the newly minted executive’s ear. The wave of ascents after Trump’s inauguration was particularly notable because the president lacked long-standing ties to the Republican political establishment. In that vacuum, people who were close to the real estate developer and reality TV star, or who claimed to be, quickly asserted themselves as power brokers.
Even so, Esposito’s rise stands out — not only because of the questions surrounding the connections he claims but because of his background: He had previously described himself as a Democratic lobbyist.
Esposito, 41, worked as a commercial pilot before following his father into the lobbying business in Washington. For years, many of their clients were local governments focused largely on transportation-related policy and federal grants.
At the time, Esposito gave only sporadically to political candidates. He donated a total of $8,650 before the 2016 election to six members of Congress, four of whom were Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog.
In a 2015 email offering to assist Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he described himself as a “Democratic lobbyist in DC going on 10 years.”
“I currently represent Polk County, Iowa (which includes Des Moines), which I have had as a client for the last 5 years,” Esposito wrote to campaign chairman John Podesta in an email that was posted online by WikiLeaks. “I am extremely close with the supervisors, and the other electeds, who I believe could significantly help early in Iowa.”
In the spring of 2016, Esposito’s father, Sante Esposito, a former Democratic chief counsel of the House Transportation Committee, left Federal Advocates to start a new firm. He declined in an interview to detail what caused the split but said he left to preserve his reputation.
“For 45 years I’ve worked in D.C. and am proud to say that my reputation is intact,” he later wrote in an email. “In 2016, I separated from Federal Advocates purposely so that I would not be associated with Mike in the future, and I have not.”
Michael Esposito declined to discuss the matter but said, “I also value my reputation and stand by the representations of myself that I have made to friends, colleagues and clients and will continue to do so.”
Three weeks before the 2016 election, a Reddit user posting under the name ferrarimike, an account associated with Esposito, wrote that Trump would lose in a landslide that would embarrass the candidate and the Republican Party.
“You can scream rigged and unfair all you want but you all nominated the idiot,” ferrarimike wrote. He added: “There’s something wrong with you if you can’t see how more qualified she is compared to that doof. It’s almost insulting that she has to stand on the same stage as him.”
On Reddit, ferrarimike identifies himself as a lobbyist in Northern Virginia. Some of the photos posted by the user were also uploaded to an online car forum by a mjeagent, a username that includes Esposito’s initials.
Esposito, who owns a house in Northern Virginia, confirmed in an email that ferrarimike is a “family account.” He did not respond to further inquiries about the anti-Trump post.
Esposito voted in the Democratic primary that year, as he had eight years earlier, according to voting data.
Less than six months after Trump took office, Esposito wrote a check to Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) — the first of five, totaling $13,400, sent to Republican members of Congress since the election. Esposito has given far more, nearly $120,000, to the Republican National Committee in the past two years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He gave another $5,400 to Trump’s reelection campaign.
Esposito attended a 2018 fundraiser with Vice President Pence in Washington, according to a photo he provided to The Post. Esposito’s wife posted a Facebook photo showing the couple at a Christmas Party at the Pence home last December. Over the summer, he attended a fundraiser in Jackson, Wyo., for the Trump campaign and the RNC.
As Esposito threw financial support to Republicans, he displayed the trappings of success. On social media, he posted photos of himself in luxury cars and wrote of the pleasure he takes in buying and selling Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. Former employees say he frequently dressed in designer Louis Vuitton clothing and was chauffeured to work in a black Cadillac Escalade.
Federal Advocates collected $4.66 million from lobbying clients in 2018, up from $3.25 million in 2017 and $907,000 in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The explosive growth led Bloomberg Government news service to dub Federal Advocates the top-performing lobbying firm in 2017.
Many media outlets have echoed Esposito’s claims regarding his relationship with the president and status in the Republican Party, helping to perpetuate the image of a D.C. lobbyist with all the right connections.
Ben Freeman, who tracks foreign influence for the Center for International Policy think tank, said Esposito’s higher billings reflect what he called “the Trump premium.”
“The closer you are to Trump, the more you can charge clients,” he said, adding, “It may not be how close you actually are, but how close people perceive you are.”
In proposals to prospective clients reviewed by The Post, Esposito is identified as a former staffer on the House Transportation Committee, the committee his father worked on for decades. A spokeswoman for the committee said there was no record of Michael Esposito having worked there in any capacity.
Asked about the apparent discrepancy, Esposito pointed to a 2007 Post story that described him as a former intern for the committee.
On his firm’s website, Esposito’s biography says he is “an integral part of the senior-most leadership of the RNC and directly advises the Chairwoman on issues of significance to the nation.” The website calls him “a major player in Republican party politics.”
Esposito does serve on the Republican National Committee Chairman’s Advisory Board, an honorary position given to donors who contribute a minimum of $5,000. An RNC letter inviting him to join the board in February 2018 says Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel turns to the group “for valuable insight and new ideas.”
But the RNC said Esposito has exaggerated his role as a “key adviser.” After being contacted by The Post, the national party sent a letter on Oct. 17 demanding that he “cease and desist” from what it called “unauthorized misappropriation of the RNC’s name and trademarks to promote your firm.” The RNC provided the letter to The Post.
RNC chief of staff Richard Walters said: “Mr. Esposito does not advise Chairwoman McDaniel or the RNC in any official capacity. We appreciate all the support we receive from donors, but this is simply not true.”
The RNC also disputed a claim that Esposito has made to four prospective government clients in proposals reviewed by The Post: that he is the “only lobbyist serving on the board.”
Esposito said in an email that he had attended advisory board events and saw no one he recognized as a registered lobbyist.
In the four proposals, Federal Advocates said Esposito has worked closely with Trump and his family. Esposito helped the Trump Organization acquire a golf club in Northern Virginia as well as the property that became the Trump International Hotel in Washington, according to the bids, including one submitted to the Sweetwater Authority water agency in Southern California in 2017 and one submitted the following year to the city of Beverly Hills.
“No other government relations firm possesses the level of personal and professional relationships with President Trump, his family and senior advisors in the White House,” the firm wrote in another of the bids, a 2017 proposal to work for the city of Desert Hot Springs, also in California. The city now pays the firm $20,000 every three months, records show.
A 2019 proposal to represent the county of Contra Costa, Calif., says Esposito “independently represented both the Kushner and Trump families’ businesses for over a decade.”
Eric Trump, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, and an administration official who spoke with Kushner said Trump and Kushner did not know Esposito. Esposito is not listed in public documents related to the hotel, and three people involved in the deal, including Eric Trump, said he played no role.
Last year, Federal Advocates moved to the 11th floor of a building on K Street, according to leasing data. As the business has grown, Esposito has announced new hires with coveted credentials in the Washington lobbying industry — and a steady stream of new clients.
In early 2019, Esposito hired Jennifer Arangio, a former National Security Council political appointee, and Kevin “Kip” Talley, a former chief of staff to Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida congressman close to Trump. And he tapped Alexander Savostianov, a former Ukrainian diplomat in the U.S. and Moscow, to head a fledgling international practice.
The three did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Esposito last year registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, allowing him to represent foreign governments and political parties. He won’t talk about that work, and his public filings reveal little about it.
In a filing on Dec. 21, 2018, Esposito registered to represent three overseas entities: the Justice political party in Ukraine; Citizen, a nonprofit led by a Justice party lawyer; and a Poland-based company called Zeset Sp. zo.o.
“Federal Advocates will identify and meet with officials in the Administration, and possibly the U.S. Congress, to discuss issues impacting Europe and how Zeset, the civil organization, Citizen, and the political party, Justice, have worked on achieving mutually agreeable policy objectives of stable democratic governments with sustained development in Europe,” he wrote.
The Justice party is led by Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, a lawmaker and former head of the Ukrainian security services who has called for investigations into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father served as vice president. The Bidens have denied wrongdoing, and Hunter Biden has said he would not work with foreign entities if his father is elected president.
In response to questions from the The Post about why the party he leads hired Esposito, Nalyvaichenko said, “These assertions have no factual basis.” He did not elaborate.
Yan Grabar, who is listed as the head of Citizen on Esposito’s filings, said he does not know Esposito and had not hired any American lobbyists.
Esposito did not respond to questions about the responses from Grabar and Nalyvaichenko.
Messages to a Gmail address on Zeset’s website were not returned.
Zeset is the only one of the three entities that has paid Federal Advocates, according to filings by Esposito. The lobbying firm was to receive one payment of $400,000 that was due immediately upon signing, according to a September 2018 contract submitted as part of Esposito’s filing. He reported that he had received the money.
In a July 2019 filing, the only work Esposito said he had done on behalf of those three clients was requesting meetings for a Justice party official with Pence, the secretary of state and the national security adviser to discuss the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. “The meeting requests were declined,” the firm reported.
In the past two years, lobbying records show, Esposito has been paid by two other Kyiv-based businesses: $520,000 from real estate company DeVision Group and $110,000 from private equity firm Amatex Capital. DeVision Group declined to comment, and Amatex Capital did not respond to emails sent to the address on its website.
Federal Advocates was also paid $120,000 to lobby on “economic development issues” for Ukrainian politician Sergey Rybalka, lobbying records show. Rybalka had no immediate comment.
Esposito declined to talk about his work for foreign clients. “We do not disclose the nature of our representation on behalf of our clients and comply with all necessary federal lobbying registration regulations in the course of our work on their behalf,” he wrote in an email.
Polk County, Iowa, pays Esposito’s firm $60,000 a month to lobby on tax issues and try to secure federal funding. Some local officials and business executives have recently questioned whether Esposito’s work is worth that price. Others said he has been effective.
“He told me he was connected to Trump and the RNC, and I’ve never had any reason to doubt him,” said Angela Connolly, a Democratic supervisor in Polk County. “Whatever it takes to get things done.”
Huawei, the world’s largest provider of telecommunications equipment, is Esposito’s highest-profile foreign client. Trump has called the company a “national security threat,” and the U.S. government has limited Huawei’s ability to do business with American firms.
Huawei hired Federal Advocates in July and recently paid the firm $1.65 million, records show. The lobbying contract is likely to rank at the top of 2019 contracts in Washington from a private client, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying data.
A Huawei spokesman, Donald Morrissey, said the company is satisfied with Esposito’s work. Morrissey said the company seeks to press its case with the president directly. “President Trump has been very hands-on from the beginning to the end of this process,” he said.
The National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, has paid Esposito’s firm nearly half a million dollars over the past two years. Spokesman Michael Correia said the association was pleased with Esposito’s work and that he was hired, in part, because of his ties to the Trump administration.
“He said he had a history with them and had connections with the RNC,” Correia said.
Dalton Bennett, David Stern, Paul Sonne and Alice Crites contributed to this report.