Jurisprudence

Is Qatar Trying to Invest in Conservative Media to Curry Favor With Trump?

Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy and former presidential advisor Steve Bannon.
Chris Ruddy and Steve Bannon.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Twitter and by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that a subsidiary investment arm of a firm owned by a Russian oligarch had paid Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen $500,000 in the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. (The investment company, run by the oligarch’s cousin, denied that the oligarch was involved in the payment.) The impact of that news—and the full implications for the various investigations of the president and his ties to Russia—is not yet known.

But two smaller, similar stories emerged on Tuesday that shed some additional light on the efforts of foreign nations to influence the president.

First, Politico reported that the Qatari government has “sought to acquire a major stake in Newsmax, the conservative media company run by President Donald Trump’s friend Chris Ruddy”:

The two people familiar with Qatar’s interest in Newsmax say the talks with the company have been overseen by Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, a younger brother of Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. They came during a mad scramble by the wealthy Gulf monarchy to win friends and clout in the United States as it struggled to respond to a Trump-endorsed blockade by its Arab neighbors.

Without answering specific questions, Ruddy told Politico “this is all false,” but as Politico noted, the conservative publication recently changed its tune on Qatar. Newsmax was among the conservative outlets that led the charge in portraying Qatar as a major state sponsor of terror, during a time when Trump was doing the same. But when the Qatari emir visited in April, Newsmax cheered the visit and said it was “widely praised.” Ruddy declined to explain the shift in tone.

On Tuesday, a second story offered another glimpse at how Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, might be seeking to co-opt conservative media as the country tries to get back into the good graces of Trump. The story, which involves a financial dispute related to a professional three-on-three basketball league, is more convoluted and bizarre than the Newsmax story.

It centers on Jeff Kwatinetz, the co-founder with Ice Cube, of the professional basketball league Big 3, who alleged in a court filing on Tuesday that a Qatari investor with apparent ties to the regime’s lobbying efforts had sought to leverage an investment in the league into an opportunity to peddle influence with former White House adviser Steve Bannon.

In a suit against his former investors, Kwatinetz alleged in a sworn declaration that Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, who he claims failed to fully deliver on more than $20 million in investment and sponsorship funding for the league, asked him during a January hike in Southern California to connect him with Bannon, who is a friend of Kwatinetz’s. From Kwatinetz’s sworn declaration:

During the hike, Mr. Al-Rumaihi stated to me that he wanted me to convey a message from the Qatari Government to Steve Bannon.

Mr. Al-Rumaihi requested I set up a meeting between him, the Qatari government, and Steve Bannon, and to tell Steve Bannon that Qatar would underwrite all of political efforts in return for his support.   

At this point, Kwatinetz says he told Al-Rumaihi that neither he nor Bannon would “ever take, or even entertain the concept, of a bribe of any kind.”

Kwatinetz’s declaration continued:

Mr. Al-Rumaihi laughed and then stated to me that I shouldn’t be naive, that so many Washington politicians take our money, and stated “do you think [Michael] Flynn turned down our money?”

Kwatinetz says that the hike took place after the billionaire Mercer family had reportedly withdrawn its financial support of Bannon following his critical comments about Trump and his family in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which he suggests was why Qatar might have seen an opening to fund Bannon’s future projects. Prior to that, Kwatinetz suggested, Al-Rumaihi had a minor obsession with Bannon.

“He did bring up many times about being fascinated with Steve Bannon, wanting to meet with Steve Bannon, and I just really ignored it,” Kwatinetz told me in an interview. “[Finally, on the hike,] he basically told me he would make it worth my while to connect [them] with Steve and that Qatar could fund all of Steve’s activities.”

A spokesperson for Al-Rumaihi’s investment group, Sport Trinity, denied the allegations in a statement:

Simply put, the statements in Mr. Kwatinetz’s declaration are pure Hollywood fiction.

Mr. Kwatinetz is engaging in a xenophobic PR smear campaign against Sport Trinity, the largest investor in BIG3 basketball, to cover up his own mismanagement and erratic behavior with respect to the league. Mr. Kwatinetz’s commercial dispute with Sport Trinity is meritless.

The Big 3 had previewed its dramatic allegations against Al-Rumaihi and other investors involved in Sport Trinity, accusing them in earlier court filings of “improper and coercive … influence peddling.” In the lead-up to Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s visit to the White House last month, the Big 3 placed a full-page ad in the New York Times that read:

Hey President Trump, When you meet today with Putin’s new friend, the Emir of Qatar, please tell him not to threaten the Big3 and American athletes. … Sincerely, Ice Cube, Jeff Kwatinetz, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and the Players and Coaches of the Big3.

Al-Rumaihi has been described by Bloomberg News as a former Qatari diplomat and is reported to have previously been in charge of a $100 billion Qatari wealth fund. More importantly, Al-Rumaihi appears to have been directly connected to Qatar’s efforts to repair its image, including a $2.5 million contract with the lobbying firm of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft’s firm promised to “enlist the support and expertise of former key government leaders, including former officials who held very senior positions within the Intelligence Community, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security as necessary,” according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing by the firm. That engagement letter, as Kwatinetz’s legal team noted in court filings, was sent to the Qatari Embassy in June, care of Ahmed Y. Al-Rumaihi. As Kwatinetz’s declaration also notes, his basketball group was approached by Al-Rumaihi’s investment group “out of the blue” three weeks after the Ashcroft lobbying deal was signed.

Slate reached out to Al-Rumaihi’s attorneys, Brian Hershman and Chris Lovrien of Jones Day, to ask whether Al-Rumaihi would swear to his own version of events in a declaration, as Kwatinetz had done, and if they could explain what Al-Rumaihi’s connection to the Ashcroft firm’s lobbying efforts might have been. I received a response from Lyndsey Estin of Kekst and Co. communications, who forwarded the statement by Sport Trinity. When I noted that the statement was not responsive to these two specific questions, Estin wrote: “Our statement is in response to all of your questions. As such, it would be inaccurate to say that Sport Trinity spokesperson would not respond to your other questions.” The Ashcroft Group’s Michael Sullivan did not respond to a query from Slate asking about Ahmed Al-Rumaihi’s possible involvement in the firm’s lobbying work.

All of this comes as Trump’s tune on Qatar has changed, following what the New York Times dubbed as a successful “charm offensive” by the country. The president welcomed Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to the White House last month with open arms and reversed his position that the regime was a major funder of terrorism. Trump had previously contradicted his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, in backing the blockade of the Qatari regime. Newsmax actually argued for Tillerson’s ouster because of his Qatar position, before changing its opinion about the country around the same time as Trump. “Ahmed talked a lot to me about how unfair Qatar was being treated with the blockade and how if it wasn’t for Rex Tillerson, they’d be in trouble,” Kwatinetz told me. “I just took it as someone who was proud of his country and I didn’t engage.”

These conversations were all in the lead-up to Al-Rumaihi’s ultimate ask about Bannon, Kwatinetz says.

It’s also worth noting, as Jed Shugerman has in Slate, that the period when Trump railed against Qatar in the harshest possible terms began one month after a Qatari fund reportedly declined a $500 million investment into Jared Kushner’s family firm. A different Qatari-linked private equity firm ultimately lent Kushner’s family firm $184 million. It was also recently reported that in January, Qatar paid $6.5 million for a condominium at Trump World Tower that would obligate it to reportedly pay monthly common charges and maintenance fees appearing to total more than $3,000 a month.

A somewhat less nefarious possible explanation for the latest shift on Qatar could be that the administration wanted to consolidate support among the Gulf states in advance of the withdrawal from the Iran deal. But that wouldn’t explain Trump’s suddenly aggressive posture toward Qatar last spring. And, as Shugerman has also noted, the Qatar money has a potential nexus with Russia in the form of some of the more damning allegations in the Steele dossier.

For his part, Kwatinetz can’t say for certain what Al-Rumaihi and his group’s motives were in getting involved in his and Ice Cube’s fledgling sports organization.

“If I was in the state department or CIA, I could probably figure it out to the point of certainty,” he told me. “But I’m just trying to run a basketball league.”

With this president in office, that might not be such a simple thing anymore.

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