Saudi Foreign Agents’ Political Donations Top $1.6 Million in 2018 Elections

Political donations made by foreign agents hired to act on behalf of Saudi Arabian interests have exceeded $1.6 million in the 2018 election cycle, according to a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Of the money flowing into US elections from lobbyists, political operatives, firms and other foreign agents who have disclosed contracts to represent the political interests of Saudi Arabia in the United States, political donations from operatives working for Saudi interests exceed half a million in 2018 elections while PACs affiliated with lobbying and public relations firms account for an additional $1.1 million this election cycle.

The total amount of political donations made by Saudi foreign agents is a conservative estimate by CRP based on reported political contributions by individuals and firms registered as foreign agents of Saudi Arabia, excluding individual lobbyist or operative contributions to their firm’s affiliated PAC to ensure no funds are double-counted — meaning the total flow of money to politicians from lobbyists, firms and political operatives representing Saudi interests is likely much larger.

For example, this estimate does not include donations to House Armed Services Committee members from leftover funds in the campaign committee of former Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon while he was working as registered foreign agent of Saudi Arabia and lobbying for defense contractors with major interest in legislation related to arms deals under the committee’s purview. McKeon and his lobbying firm, the McKeon Group, signed on to represent the Saudi government’s political interests shortly after he left Congress, where he was the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. During his time on the Hill, McKeon himself was a top recipient of defense contractor funds as well.

Saudi interests have spent more than $24 million to influence US policy and public opinion during the 2018 election cycle, according to disclosures to the Department of Justice made in compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and made available through CRP’s Foreign Lobby Watch tool. Around $18 million of that was paid to foreign agents acting on behalf of Saudi interests in 2017 and another $6 million in spending has already been reported this year, making Saudi Arabia one of the top 10 countries spending on influence and lobbying in the United States.

New Filings by Lobbying Firms Dropping Saudi Clients

In light of controversy surrounding the recent disappearance and alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate, however, some firms hired to clean up Saudi Arabia’s image and promote its interests in the United States have made announcements seeking to distance themselves from the country.

Now, some of these firms have officially changed their relationship status, formalizing the termination of their lucrative contracts to act as foreign agents on behalf of Saudi interests in amendments filed with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and made available through CRP’s Foreign Lobby Watch tool — but these very public gestures by lobbying firms seeking to distance themselves from their Saudi clients may not all be what they seem.

Glover Park Group and its lobbyists “ceased providing services” to Saudi Arabia’s embassy effective Oct. 15, according the firm’s Oct. 19 filing submitted to DOJ and made available through Foreign Lobby Watch, promising that their next supplemental statement report to be filed in the first quarter of 2019 will disclose activities on behalf of the Saudi embassy under their now terminated $150,000-per-month contract signed earlier this year. Glover Park Group had continued disseminating informational materials on behalf of Saudi Arabia and adding new operatives to the account through the month of September.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher terminated the firm’s representation of Saudi Arabia on Oct. 18, as confirmed in a filing submitted to DOJ on the same date.

Gibson Dunn’s on-again-off-again FARA relationship with Saudi Arabia stretches back to filings in 1995 but features a gap between that brief stint and the firm’s new contract re-signing the Saudi government, along with Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, as clients in 2018. Under the contract, Gibson Dunn may have little to lose by its noble gesture, since it provides for a flat fee of $250,000 to be paid up front unless the Saudi government had decided to expand the scope of the engagement.

BGR Government Affairs’ Oct. 16 termination filing simply states that the firm is “no longer working on behalf of The Embassy of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” but does not go into additional detail.

BGR stands to lose $80,000-per-month for the remainder of their terminated contract with the Saudi embassy that was originally scheduled to last through February 2019. However, there may be more than meets the eye to its termination as well. BGR had previously represented the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court, but filed a disclosure with DOJ earlier in 2018 reporting that the representation was “transferred to The Embassy of The Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia as of August 3, 2018.” But BGR filed another peculiar amendment shortly thereafter noting that “The Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court was inadvertently left off the list of Foreign Principals BGR continued to represent during the six month reporting period.”

Another lobbying and public relations firm, the Harbour Group, announced its intention to terminate an $80,000-per-month contract as a foreign the Saudi government clients on Oct. 12 but no filings have been made publicly available through DOJ as of Oct. 22.

Out With the Old, in With the New

Although some firms have sought to cut ties with Saudi interests, Saudi Arabia’s lobbying and influence juggernaut is hardly on life support.

Dozens of other firms remain on the payroll of the Saudi Arabian government, lobbying to influence US policy and working to shape Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States.

Even as other firms were distancing themselves from the Saudi interests they were hired to represent, Saudi Arabia was still building up its vast lobbying and influence network in the United States, with a new firm signing on to represent Saudi interests within days of the Turkish government’s announcement that it would investigate Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance earlier in October.

Southfive Strategies, the latest lobbying and public relations firm to ink a contract with Saudi interests, is now a registered foreign agent of the Muslim World League as a subcontractor for the Saudi-American Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC). The Muslim World League has “condemned the allegations against Saudi Arabia,” following the backlash after new revelations around Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Saudi Arabia has a long history of lobbying and influence in the United States, and the country’s robust spending is hardly a new phenomenon. Saudi Arabia has maintained long-standing relationships with foreign agents over the years, building up a vast influence network memorialized in FARA filings dating back to the 1950s.

Saudi interests reported spending more than $100 million in the ten years after September 11 alone, according to one analysis of FARA filings.

Saudi Arabia’s substantial spending on lobbying and public relations may pale in comparison, however, when held up to the $100 million Saudi Arabia directly transferred to the US government on Oct. 16 — the same day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Saudi capital to discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance. Intended for American efforts to stabilize parts of Syria, securing the funding was seen by many as a win for President Trump, despite the questionable timing.

Enticing the Trump Administration

Saudi Arabia’s shift in strategy to woo the Trump administration has been evident in their foreign agent’s FARA disclosures.

One of Saudi Arabia’s highest-paid firms since Trump took office is Sonoran Policy Group, a lobbying firm founded by Trump campaign advisor Robert Stryk. A $5.4 million payment by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior paid up front for “broad advisory services” — under a contract that was reportedly terminated shortly after it was signed, resulting in the Trump ally-heavy firm essentially being paid over $5 million to “do nothing” — made up the bulk of its $6 million in reported 2017 receipts from foreign interests seeking to influence the United States.

Other notable Trump allies who have worked for Sonoran Policy Group since the start of 2017 include the Trump campaign’s national field director, a Trump campaign state chief of staff and the former deputy to ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Another firm that has continued to represent Saudi interests, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, touted its team’s “significant relationships” with the incoming Trump administration. Unlike some other firms, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has not sought to sever its ties with the Kingdom, standing to lose $125,000-per-month under its most recent contract on file with DOJ and made available through the Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

Saudi Arabia’s agents have also wielded influence in the Trump administration through less traditional channels.

The Government of Saudi Arabia reported paying the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, nearly $270,000 as part of Qorvis MSLGroup’s lobbying campaign, as first reported by the Daily Caller and confirmed in a FARA disclosure made available through the Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

The room revenue at Trump International Hotel in Manhattan rose 13 percent in the first three months of 2018 after a two-year decline due to a “last minute visit” by the Saudi Crown Prince.

The Trump Organization claimed it would donate foreign government profits to US Treasury Department under an ethics agreement but has kept the details of the agreement hidden from the public.

A 2018 report to Trump Hotel Chicago investors on foreign and US customers broken down by country — obtained by the Washington Post — showed a 169 percent increase in Saudi Arabia-based patrons since 2016. The Trump Organization declined to say whether the Saudi government fronted the bill for those rooms.

One Trump appointee is even an active Saudi foreign agent, continuing to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars for representing the interests of Saudi Arabia while simultaneously serving on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. Richard Hohlt registered as a foreign agent of the Saudi Arabian government weeks before the 2016 presidential election — and just months before President Trump appointed him the commission — under a contract paying him $430,000 for “advice on legislative and public affairs strategies.”

Hohlt is exempt from President Trump’s executive order imposing a lifetime ban on executive branch appointees engaging in foreign lobbying or other work that would require registration under FARA since it does not apply to part-time appointees, who are free to concurrently hold US government appointments while working to promote the interests of a foreign government under current ethics laws.

But Saudi Arabia’s attempts to influence American public opinion and US government policy did not start with the Trump administration by any means, as the country has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to advance its interests in the US over several decades.

By the Numbers

Saudi Arabian interests spent more than $24 million on US influence operations since 2017, with approximately $18 million of that paid to lobbyists and other foreign agents in 2017, according to Foreign Lobby Watch data calculated from spending reported in supplemental statement disclosures.

DOJ’s semi-annual reports to Congress encapsulate figures totaling approximately $27 million for reports filed by registrants working on behalf of Saudi interests during the 2017 calendar year and $10 million for 2016, but those amounts do not take into account more than $18 million in receipts from 2016 reported in supplemental statements filed the following year. These semi-annual reports to Congress only account for the date that a disclosure was filed with DOJ, not the dates that those amounts were actually spent by foreign principals to pay agents hired to represent their interests in the US.

Registrants working on behalf of foreign principals are only required to file a supplemental statement every six months with no set date as a deadline, so a reporting period may run over multiple calendar years, causing some of that spending to be included in a report filed during a year other than when the spending took place.

Due to the prevalence of retroactive filers in recent years, it’s important to recognize that DOJ’s semi-annual reports to Congress may not provide a complete and accurate representation of annual spending during that calendar year when comparing one year to the next.

While the legality of foreign agents retroactively submitting FARA disclosures to DOJ remains a subject of much debate, a number of registrants have done just that. In some cases, spending was reported to DOJ years — and, in at least one instance, over a decade — after the activities took place. The practice of filing FARA disclosures retroactively is not unique to big-name foreign agents like the Podesta Group, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.

The Center for Responsive Politics’ categorization by year is based on the reported dates of monetary receipts in supplemental statements rather than the summary amounts included in the semi-annual reports to Congress to ensure that the year in which money was paid by a foreign principal to an influence agent is the year that spending is reported.