Michael B. Williams spent nearly two years helping to run a trade group focused on expanding sales of firearm silencers by American manufacturers.
But try as he might, he could not achieve one of the industry’s main goals: overturning a ban on sales to private foreign buyers enacted by the State Department to protect American troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Then Mr. Williams joined the Trump administration.
As a White House lawyer, he pushed to overturn the prohibition, raising the issue with influential administration officials and creating pressure within the State Department, according to current and former government officials.
On Friday, the State Department lifted the ban, and a longtime industry goal was realized. The change paved the way for as much as $250 million a year in possible new overseas sales for companies that Mr. Williams had championed as general counsel of the American Suppressor Association.
His role in pushing to lift the ban, which has not been previously reported, follows a well-established pattern in the Trump administration, with the president handing over policymaking to allies of special interest groups with a stake in those policies. And in this case, Mr. Williams’s victory comes for a key constituency as President Trump seeks re-election.
Mr. Trump’s cabinet includes a former coal lobbyist as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a former lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon Technologies as Defense Secretary, a lobbyist for the auto industry at the helm of the Energy Department and a former oil and gas lobbyist as Interior Secretary. Those industries have been sources of funds for Mr. Trump’s campaign and committees supporting it.
Mr. Williams’s work, though lower-profile, has nevertheless been a boon to another crucial political constituency: the gun lobby, which plays a leading role in Republican get-out-the-vote efforts and views eliminating silencer restrictions as an emerging issue. It’s a subject that has been embraced by the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. — an ally of Mr. Williams’s former trade group — as well as by other powerful gun industry groups.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
“This is another win for the firearm and suppressor manufacturers by the Trump administration,” said Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, in a statement after the ban was lifted Friday.
In an interview, Mr. Keane praised Mr. Williams, saying “he understands the product, obviously, having worked at the American Suppressor Association.” That association said it was “thrilled” with the ban’s end; the group also dismissed safety concerns, noting that the sales would be regulated by the State Department and that foreign-made silencers were already available for purchase in other countries.
But some in military, diplomatic and arms control circles defended the ban and expressed alarm about its lifting, which was announced on Friday afternoon in a little-noticed posting on the website of the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. Although the department’s rules had long permitted selling silencers to foreign governments, they did not allow sales to private companies or individuals, whose use of the devices is more difficult to monitor.
Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr., who was assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs when the ban was enacted in 2002, said the policy was intended to prevent American equipment from making its way to hostile groups that might use it against American service members, especially during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“Terrorist groups were using garage door openers to blow up U.S. troops; you kind of think twice about what you are exporting,” said Mr. Bloomfield, who added that such dangers still exist today. “Who are you selling these silencers to?” he said. “I sure hope that none of these are aimed at U.S. or allied forces.”
A State Department spokeswoman said the policy change was made to benefit American manufacturers. “U.S. companies should have the same opportunity to compete in the international marketplace as other manufacturers around the world,” the spokeswoman said. She also said that silencers were more readily available in foreign countries now than when the ban was imposed.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Williams declined to comment.
An examination of Mr. Williams’s rise from trade group advocate to West Wing lawyer reveals that White House tumult and turnover created opportunities for him.
After joining Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2016, Mr. Williams, at age 30, became an assistant deputy general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget, then led by Mick Mulvaney.
In the spring of 2019, not long after Mr. Mulvaney was elevated to acting White House chief of staff, Mr. Williams joined him as counselor and a deputy assistant to the president. It was from that perch that Mr. Williams began to press the gun issues in earnest, according to the current and former officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Throughout his time in the White House, Mr. Williams maintained close ties to the suppressor association, which is funded by silencer manufacturers, distributors, retailers and customers. His brother, Knox Williams, started the organization and serves as its president and executive director, and the two have remained in regular contact. “We speak almost every day,” Knox Williams said in an interview.
Mr. Williams, his brother said, did not run afoul of Trump administration ethics rules that forbid government officials from working on matters affecting their former employers within two years of leaving. But in 2019, he set to work on gun issues without those constraints.
He was involved in a successful push to shift responsibility for foreign sales of semiautomatic weapons, including powerful .50-caliber sniper rifles, to the Commerce Department from the State Department — an effort that had been underway since the Obama administration and that had been previously blocked by Democratic members of Congress over concerns that it would strip away oversight.
Once that was accomplished, Mr. Williams turned to the silencer sales ban, even though in internal discussions Pentagon officials had warned against lifting it. The officials feared that American troops who came under silenced gunfire might struggle to locate their attackers and return fire.
Knox Williams rejected the suggestion that his group had an inside advantage. “We work the issues that we work just the same as any other organization does,” he said, though he said he believed his brother had played a role in the industry scoring its latest win.
“It’s a big victory for us, and a victory for our industry, and a victory for our consumers, and frankly a victory for the country,” he said. “This is going to create hundreds of jobs, easily, if not more.”
Government watchdog groups, however, said the case raised concerns about special interests gaining remarkable access in the Trump White House.
“When Michael Williams exits through the revolving door to return to the gun industry, I’m sure he will be greeted with open arms,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a government ethics advocacy group that has filed records requests for Mr. Williams’s communications with the gun lobby from the White House budget office.
Records obtained by Mr. Evers’s group show that in early 2018, about a year after his arrival at the White House, Mr. Williams was invited by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to three meetings that another invitee described as being about countering gun control measures after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
Mr. Keane, the shooting sports foundation’s general counsel, said Mr. Williams did not attend the meetings and had been invited in error. Nevertheless, he said his group communicated with Mr. Williams about the State Department’s silencer policy, and other Second Amendment-related issues. He said Mr. Williams took on what Mr. Keane called the “hook and bullet” portfolio — fishing and hunting issues — at the White House.
A Georgia native and Eagle Scout, Mr. Williams worked as a law clerk for the National Rifle Association before graduating from George Washington University Law School in 2014. Soon after, he went to work at the American Suppressor Association, which his brother had co-founded three years earlier. Mr. Williams managed the group’s budget, but he also helped draft legislation and lobby lawmakers, his brother said. One of his main issues was the fight to open up sales of silencers to private foreign buyers.
Intent on understanding the reasons for the sales ban, Mr. Williams filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents from the State Department and then battled the agency over them for more than a year. His association also sought to attack the ban from Capitol Hill, helping to draft and push a bill introduced by Representative Chris Stewart, Republican of Utah, in 2016 that would have overturned the sales prohibition, according to Knox Williams. The bill never got out of committee.
Neither Mr. Williams nor his brother was required to register as a lobbyist at the federal level, his brother said, because they did not spend 20 percent or more of their time lobbying. “We made sure that we were not hitting those thresholds to require us individually to register,” Knox Williams said.
After Mr. Trump accepted the Republican nomination in the summer of 2016, their cause got a boost from a prominent figure, Donald Trump Jr.
The candidate’s son, an avid hunter, recorded a video in September 2016 with Joshua G. Waldron, a founding board member of the suppressor association, expressing support for making silencers easier to buy in the United States.
Mr. Waldron, who founded a company called SilencerCo, tells Mr. Trump in the video “there is no better person than your father to protect our Second Amendment,” and says he wants to “try to get the people that love firearms in our community and our industry” to back the Trump campaign.
The same month, Mr. Wiliams left the suppressor association to become director of Election Day operations for Mr. Trump’s campaign in North Carolina. He worked as associate counsel on Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee before joining the Office of Management and Budget in January 2017.
He returned to the budget office last month. Knox Williams credited him with helping to lay the groundwork for Friday’s announcement before his return. “This is a yearslong effort and buildup that just finally got across the finish line,” he said.