Barry Zekelman, a Canadian billionaire whose business is mostly in the United States, is not a guy who likes to lose – or go slow.
On days off, he likes to race his Ferrari 488 sports cars. Or he might climb aboard his Gulfstream IV jet to fly to the Bahamas to visit his 121-foot superyacht, which he named “Man of Steel” in a nod to his role as chief executive of Zekelman Industries, North America’s largest steel-tube manufacturer.
So when Mr. Zekelman saw a chance to address his greatest frustration – a flood of cheap steel-tube imports into the United States that was undermining sales at his family-owned, Chicago-based company – he went all out to win in another intensely competitive arena: influencing policy in Washington.
He called on well-placed connections, including a lawyer who had done work for him and had gone on to a senior position helping oversee trade policy in the Trump administration. He put his Washington-based lobbyist into action, and his company took a high-profile role with a trade group that was backing his cause. He funded his own advertising campaign to build public support for his efforts to protect makers of steel tube in the United States.
And Zekelman Industries made political donations in the United States – skirting or possibly violating a ban on contributions by foreigners – including US$1.75-million last year to a group supporting U.S. President Donald Trump.
That lobbying effort was how he and his wife found themselves being ushered into a private dining room at the Trump International Hotel in Washington last spring for a small dinner with the President and his son Donald Trump Jr. Mr. Zekelman said they discussed quotas the United States was about to impose on imports of steel from competitors in South Korea.
“He’s attacking the problems that should have been attacked for many years,” Mr. Zekelman, 52, said of Mr. Trump in an interview.
His status as a foreigner seeking to promote protectionist policies in the United States makes him unusual. But Mr. Zekelman’s effort amounts to a case study in how to gain and employ access in Mr. Trump’s Washington, where an ideological commitment to aiding business meets an open door to lobbyists, interest groups and donors – especially those from industries, such as oil and gas, chemicals, casinos and steel, that are strong supporters of Mr. Trump.
“The United States government has put the industry in charge of trade policy on steel,” said Julie Mendoza, a lawyer whose clients include Borusan Mannesmann, a manufacturer of steel tube whose imports to the United States from Turkey have prompted Zekelman Industries to lodge protests with the administration. “It’s just not right.”
The lobbying campaign has, at times, come close to the edge of the federal rules, including the law that prohibits foreigners from donating to election campaigns, an examination by The New York Times found. But it has also proved highly successful in encouraging actions that have benefited Mr. Zekelman’s company’s bottom line and his American employees.
Mr. Trump has won backing – and political donations – from a number of steel companies, including executives at Nucor Corp., the country’s largest steel producer, and AK Steel Holding Corp.
But Zekelman Industries now stands out as the biggest steel industry donor to Mr. Trump’s affiliated political committees, records show.
The US$1.75-million in contributions were delivered in three chunks last year to America First Action SuperPAC, which was created in January, 2017, by former Trump campaign aides to push Mr. Trump’s agenda.
Federal Election Commission rules prohibit any foreigner from “directing, dictating, controlling, or directly or indirectly participating in the decision-making process” related to any campaign contribution, including super PACs.
Mr. Zekelman, who does not have U.S. citizenship, said in an interview that he did not play a role in the decision to donate. But he added that he did discuss the matter with other company executives, after a representative from America First Action approached one of Zekelman Industries’ lawyers and asked for a contribution.
“They contacted our people; our people brought it to me,” Mr. Zekelman said. “I said, ‘Great, I would love to find a way to support him.’ ”
Mr. Zekelman said the donation was legal because the final decision was made by members of his board who are American citizens or legal residents of the United States, and the money was donated through Wheatland Tube, a U.S.-based subsidiary of Zekelman Industries, which he owns with his two brothers.
After The New York Times raised questions about the donation, Mickey McNamara, general counsel at Zekelman Industries and president of Wheatland Tube, said he did not recall discussing the matter with Mr. Zekelman. Mr. McNamara said he decided to make the donation without consulting with Mr. Zekelman.
In a statement, Brian Walsh, president of America First Action, said the organization did not accept foreign contributions. “All contributors are expressly asked to affirm they are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident,” he said.
Adav Noti, a former associate general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, said that if Mr. Zekelman had discussed the matter with colleagues at work, he had most likely violated federal law, even if the formal decision to donate was made by others.
“This sounds pretty clearly unlawful to me,” said Mr. Noti, now chief of staff at Campaign Legal Center, which monitors election law compliance.
Mr. Zekelman’s drive to get help from the Trump administration started just 10 days after Mr. Trump took office in 2017, e-mail records show, and more than a year before his company made its first donation to America First Action.
He reached out to Stephen Vaughn, then the acting U.S. trade representative, who had been a lawyer at King & Spalding, where his clients included Zekelman Industries.
“I would like to bring Barry Zekelman by to meet you at 3:30 or 4 p.m. on Wednesday, February 1,” Bonnie Byers, a lobbyist at King & Spalding who still represents Zekelman Industries, wrote to Vaughn, her former colleague. “Hope that will be doable. I know how busy you are and we will not take much time.”
Three minutes later, Mr. Vaughn wrote back: “Let’s plan to meet Wednesday at 4 p.m.”
Mr. Vaughn’s calendar is blacked out for the time of the meeting. But a log from the agency’s headquarters shows that Mr. Zekelman and Mr. Byers signed in shortly before the scheduled meeting.
Federal ethics rules prohibit senior administration officials from having meetings or communications with a former employer or former client for one year unless it is a public event “open to all interested parties.” White House officials said Mr. Vaughn did not receive a waiver for the meeting. Asked about the visit, the trade representative’s office said it was “a brief personal meeting, not a business meeting.”
But Mr. Zekelman said his business message to Mr. Vaughn during that visit was clear.
“Imports are a real issue, hurting the industry and they have got to be dealt with,” he said, recalling the pitch he made to his former lawyer. “Find a way to dig in and get after these things and start to hold these countries and companies accountable.”
Mr. Vaughn, who until this month served as general counsel in the trade representative’s office, is far from the only contact that Mr. Zekelman has inside the administration.
Gilbert Kaplan, a lawyer who has filed more than a dozen lawsuits or complaints on behalf of Zekelman Industries, was named undersecretary of commerce for international trade, a role in which he helps oversee trade negotiations related to the steel industry.
Agency records show the extensive access that Mr. Zekelman and his executives have had to top trade officials, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; the White House trade adviser, Peter Navarro; Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative; and officials at the Customs and Border Protection agency, which enforces trade laws.
The most important step the administration has taken to help the industry is a 25-per-cent tariff on imports, which resulted in a surge in sales from Zekelman’s U.S. plants. This came in March, 2018, weeks before Zekelman Industries wrote its first check to America First Action, for US$1-million.
The tariff was followed by a cap on steel imports from three countries, including South Korea, which had been a major competitor for Zekelman.
The administration has also been moving aggressively on complaints that companies are trying to import goods from nations like Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates, where manufacturing is government-subsidized or gets other unfair benefits, said Roger Schagrin, a lawyer and lobbyist who represents Zekelman and other U.S.-based steel-tube makers.
“Whack-a-mole” is how Mr. Zekelman described his effort to head off subsidized imports, given that as soon as he managed to get punitive action against one competitor, another emerged.
On Friday, the administration reached a deal to eliminate the 25-per-cent tariffs on steel imports from Canada and Mexico, while leaving them in place for most of the rest of the world. The decision will benefit Mr. Zekelman, whose biggest manufacturing plant is in Harrow, Ont., meaning the company will now be able to ship Canadian-made pipe into the United States tariff-free, even as Mr. Zekelman advocates protection for his U.S. plants.