Clete Willems is trading in the White House for K Street

“My biggest joke now is I went to become a partner in a law firm, so I can work less”

Clete Willems has gone from chauffeuring Rep. Paul D. Ryan to working on trade policy at the White House to partnering at the Akin Gump law firm on K Street. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Clete Willems has gone from chauffeuring Rep. Paul D. Ryan to working on trade policy at the White House to partnering at the Akin Gump law firm on K Street. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 19, 2019 at 7:30am

The timing of Clete Willems’ recent departure from the White House seemed a bit inopportune what with negotiations over trade disputes with China hitting a pivotal point. But the international economics adviser to the president says he had other commitments to keep.

Though the Trump White House has a reputation for unpredictability and plenty of staffing drama, Willems says the reason for his departure was more personal. When he took on the new gig at the beginning of the Trump administration, he made a pact with his wife: When they had a second child, he would head for the exit. His daughter was born in March.

“So, time was up,” says Willems, who started a new gig last month as a partner at the K Street law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the city’s biggest lobbying practice.

Willems, a 39-year-old former congressional aide, got his start in politics and policy back in 2002 as a driver for then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who later rose to speaker of the House. Willems served in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative all through the Obama administration as a career attorney.

He left the White House as deputy assistant to the president for international economics and deputy director of the National Economic Council.

“When you are dealing with pressing trade negotiations, when you are dealing with national security issues, when you are dealing with counterparts around the world in different time zones, you end up working a lot,” Willems says during an interview in Akin Gump’s new downtown D.C. digs with a view of the Georgetown waterfront and Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River.

“My biggest joke now is I went to become a partner in a law firm, so I can work less,” he quips.

With his spin through the revolving door between government service and K Street, Willems plans to rely on his Hill and administration experience to help companies and business associations with international trade and domestic policy issues. Akin Gump’s clients include Amazon, the American Bankers Association, Bayer and Chevron.

The Trump administration’s populist positions on trade — including a redo of the North American Free Trade Agreement, new tariffs on specific goods and a hard line with China leading to a trade war with the global powerhouse — have roiled the business community. And even as some administration officials may seem toxic to corporate clients, Willems’ hire shows that companies and business groups are hungry for insider intelligence about what drives Trump’s trade agenda.

“The trade landscape has rarely been as important to companies around the world as it is now, and Clete will be an invaluable resource for clients seeking to navigate this terrain,” says Brian Pomper, who serves as co-head of Akin Gump’s public law and policy group.

Willems faces temporary restrictions on lobbying his former colleagues. And though the firm represents some foreign governments, including Japan and the United Arab Emirates, Willems signed a Trump administration ethics pledge forbidding such work upon his departure.

“The ethics pledge has a restriction on FARA,” he confirms, referencing the Foreign Agents Registration Act that regulates the representation of foreign governments in the United States.

Willems can lobby on Capitol Hill and can make the rounds internationally, using contacts he met while working in the executive branch. He served as President Donald Trump’s sherpa, or guide, to international G-7 and G-20 summits, providing entrée to his peers around the world including members of China’s negotiating team.

He also handled litigation before the World Trade Organization, so he expects to continue legal work for private-sector clients as well.

“If a company walks in the door and says: ‘OK, I have a problem in the U.S., or I have a problem abroad’ with one of these places where I understand their system and I know their people … I can be helpful in offering what I would call a multisuite, multi-faceted solution,” Willems says.

Willems, who says he was good at math as a student, took an interesting route to trade policy, but his path has a China connection.

In high school, he says his father flagged news stories he wanted his son to read.

“One night, he put an article on my bed about how America was falling behind in engineering, and how China and other countries were getting all the world’s best engineers,” recalls Willems, who grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “As a patriot, I said, ‘You know what, I want to be an engineer and help my country.’”

He took that mantra to the University of Notre Dame, where he studied engineering. After graduation he soured on engineering, but still wanted to serve his country.

“So I called up Congressman Ryan’s office and said, ‘How can I help?’ And they basically had me start as an intern, answering phones, clipping newspapers and showing the congressman stories, driving him around the district,” he says.

He and Ryan clicked and the future speaker offered him a job in Washington as a legislative assistant. He worked his way up to legislative director and then advised Ryan when he joined the Budget Committee.

“From his first day in my office to his last day in the administration, I have continued to be impressed by Clete Willems’ character, drive, and intelligence,” Ryan said in a statement. “Whether working for better trade policy in my office or in the Trump administration, Clete has been a tremendous asset in advancing the country’s economic agenda and enhancing our relationships with nations across the globe, and he will be sorely missed.”

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