For insight into the interplay of money, power, access, and Donald Trump, you need not look further than the recent emoluments lawsuits filed against the president. The details of some of the possible constitutional violations, where President Trump is potentially profiting from payments by foreign governments, are on full display in a Washington Post report Wednesday that found lobbyists representing the government of Saudi Arabia reserved some 500 rooms at Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel shortly after the 2016 election.
“At the time, these lobbyists were reserving large numbers of D.C.-area hotel rooms as part of an unorthodox campaign that offered U.S. military veterans a free trip to Washington—then sent them to Capitol Hill to lobby against a law the Saudis opposed,” veterans and organizers told the Post. “At first, Saudi lobbyists put the veterans up in Northern Virginia. Then, in December 2016, they switched most of their business to the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington. In all, the lobbyists spent more $270,000 to house six groups of visiting veterans at the Trump hotel, which Trump still owns.”
In late 2016, the Saudi government was concerned about the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act or “JASTA.” President Obama had vetoed the bill, but, in September 2016, Congress resoundingly voted to override Obama’s veto; in the Senate the vote was 97 to 1 and in the House 348 to 77. The newly passed JASTA would allow U.S. courts to waive foreign government’s sovereign immunity claims in cases of terrorism in the U.S. The Saudi government, which had been implicated in providing support for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens—strongly opposed the measure because it meant families of victims of the 9/11 attacks could potentially sue the Saudi government for its alleged role in the thousands of deaths that day.
The 9/11 families were a powerful and emotive political force on the Hill, so the Saudis decided they needed a similarly special class of American to make their case: veterans. Using its longtime Washington lobbying firm Qorvis/MSLGroup, the Saudis offered all-expense paid trips to D.C. for hundreds of veterans to make their case to members of congress. The veterans were told that the new law might hurt the U.S. military by opening up American soldiers, such as themselves, to similar prosecution in other countries for their wartime conduct. This was the same general argument the Obama administration was making at the time against JASTA.
It’s unclear just how upfront Qorvis/MSLGroup was about who was funding the trip, though it appears there were at least hints that Saudi Arabia was footing the bill. Even still, a number of those who attended told the Post they were not aware that it was the Saudis who were providing the financial backing. “Trump hotel executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss their clients, said they were unaware at the time that Saudi Arabia was ultimately footing the bill and declined to comment on the rates they offer to guests,” according to the Post. The lobbying firm said it used the Trump hotel because it offered them a good rate of $360 per person per night, which was far below the $768 nightly rate the Trump Organization claimed to be bringing in, according financial records of the General Services Administration of the U.S. government, which actually owns the building.
So, here you have both sides claiming ignorance, saying they didn’t do anything that would overtly resemble a quid pro quo, but that’s exactly why the emoluments clause exists—to make sure there isn’t even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The deep, often unseemly financial ties between the U.S and the Saudi Royal Family are nothing new, and have always been a political factor. But with the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Trump’s unwillingness to finger Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman questions are rightly being raised again about the nature of the ties at all levels. The Post report has also (again) shone a light on how haphazard and arbitrary Trump and his businesses have been in following the law and addressing some serious and legitimate questions about his business practices while in office.
For instance, “[i]n a filing with the Justice Department—required of U.S. firms working as agents for foreign powers—Qorvis said it had spent $190,000 on lodging at the Trump hotel, and another $82,000 on catering and parking,” the Post reports. “Earlier this year, the Trump Organization donated about $151,000 to the U.S. Treasury, saying that was its amount of profits from foreign governments, without explaining how it arrived at that number. The Justice Department, defending Trump in the lawsuits, says the Constitution doesn’t bar routine business transactions.”