The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, Saudi influence machine whirs on in Washington

President Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the opening day of the Group of 20 meeting in Buenos Aires in late 2018. (Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

After the killing in October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, a handful of lobbying firms and think tanks made a move rare in Washington: They publicly severed ties with Saudi Arabia, swearing off the kingdom’s money.

But nine months later, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to influence U.S. policy continue unabated — bolstered by President Trump’s embrace of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite a recent United Nations report that the prince was complicit in the grisly killing and dismemberment of the Washington Post contributing columnist and political dissident. 

Since fall 2018, high-powered lobbyists and lawyers have reaped millions of dollars for assisting the kingdom as it works to develop nuclear power, buy American-made weapons and prolong U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen, foreign lobbying records show. 

One Washington-based communications firm — whose parent company initially expressed concern when Khashoggi disappeared — recently reported collecting nearly $19 million for what it says was several years of work for the Saudi government. A New York-based public relations firm run by a former Clinton administration appointee signed on in February to represent a Saudi interest for as much as $120,000 a month, filings show.

The firms representing the kingdom operate under wide political cover provided by Trump. The president posed for photos with Mohammed on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan late last month, calling him “my friend.” When asked about Khashoggi’s murder, Trump has repeatedly emphasized the economic benefits of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

“Take their money,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, describing his posture toward the kingdom. “Take their money.”

On Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. What has been done in the aftermath? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas LeGro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)

Shaped by a sophisticated influence machine that was built over decades, Saudi support on Capitol Hill has been tested in recent months amid international outrage over Khashoggi’s death and a war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and led to massive hunger.

And last month, the United Nations released a report on a months-long investigation that found “credible evidence” that top Saudi officials, including Mohammed, were liable for Khashoggi’s murder. The report reinforced the conclusions of U.S. intelligence officials, who concluded that Mohammed ordered the assassination. 

Saudi officials have dismissed both the CIA’s claims and the U.N. findings, saying the U.N. report contained “contradictions and baseless allegations.”

U.N. investigator calls for probe of Saudi officials in Khashoggi killing

Last week, the lead U.N. investigator said the international community should impose “political accountability” by quashing Saudi Arabia’s plan to host the next G-20 meeting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

In recent months, some Republicans have joined Democrats in trying to limit U.S. military aid and weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. But with billions of dollars at stake, the powerful defense industry has helped the Saudi lobbying corps contain Republican defections. Congressional votes in recent months have fallen short of majorities needed to override the president’s vetoes. 

 “The Saudis lost some lobbyists last year, but the firms they still have working for them went into overdrive,” said Ben Freeman, who tracks foreign influence for the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning think tank. “As long as Trump remains on their side, they are going to get their arms and have U.S. involvement in Yemen. So there’s still no real punishment for them, and the lobby is a key part of making that happen.”

 The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

'A valuable ally'

Saudi Arabia has found new boosters in the United States since Khashoggi’s murder. Its sovereign wealth fund — which is chaired by the crown prince — in February hired Karv Communications, a New York public relations firm run by Andrew Frank, who worked at the United States Information Agency in the Clinton administration. 

The public relations firm is tasked with creating a distinction between the fund’s “investment-driven mission and the political leadership in Saudi Arabia” and preparing for “potential negative developments,” according to the contract, which was filed publicly. 

Frank said his firm is not lobbying members of Congress. “Our role is to build bridges,” he said. “We’re on the economic side and not doing political outreach, period.”

So far, Karv Communications has been paid $342,000 by the fund, as well as being given the gift of a foosball table, lobbying records show.

Saudi Arabia is one of the highest-spending countries seeking to influence U.S. policy, ranking fifth in an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics that reviewed the flow of foreign money from 2017 to the present. 

Roughly 20 firms are registered to lobby for Saudi interests, compared with more than 25 before Khashoggi’s death, foreign lobbying filings show.

Lobbyists for Saudi Arabia tout the country’s role as a key U.S. partner in combating terrorism at a time of mounting tensions with Iran. Saudi Arabia was the first country to sign on to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s plan for allies to help outfit tankers with cameras to monitor threats from Iran, following the shooting down of a U.S. drone on June 20. 

One lobbyist for the kingdom said that making a case on Capitol Hill for his client is not difficult.

“It is undeniable that they are a valuable ally, a very important strategic asset in the Middle East and a counterweight to Iran,” said Alfred Mottur, a senior partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a leading Washington lobbying firm that Saudi Arabia has paid $1.5 million since October, filings show.

When reports emerged that Khashoggi may have been killed during his visit to the Saudi Consulate on Oct. 2, some longtime lobbyists expressed concern. Among them was MSL, the parent company of Qorvis Communications, a Washington-based crisis communications firm that has worked for the kingdom since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Hatice Cengiz says she would like to say this to her fiance, Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul while she waited outside. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We take the situation seriously and wait for all the facts to become known,” the company said in a statement at the time.

Inside the firm, there were disagreements over how to proceed in the wake of the killing, according to former employees. But ultimately, MSL and Qorvis continued working for the Saudi government.

 Among the firms registered to lobby in the United States on behalf of the kingdom, MSL has reported receiving the most money since October: $18.8 million.

Michael Petruzzello, president of Qorvis Communications, said the money was for work “billed over several years and recently paid all at once.” He declined to comment on the firm’s decision to continue to represent Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder.

Public filings show that MSL/Qorvis made dozens of contacts in the past six months with media outlets and think tanks — including the Brookings Institution and the Middle East Institute, which said after Khashoggi’s death that they would no longer accept Saudi funding. MSL’s work related to U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and policy on Yemen, according to the filings, which do not specifically mention Khashoggi. A Brookings official acknowledged receiving Saudi-related requests for meetings from MSL/Qorvis in recent months but said the think tank declined to participate.

At least five firms did end up cutting business ties with Saudi interests in the fall: Glover Park Group, BGR Group, Harbour Group, CGCN Group and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, filings show.

Two more Washington lobbying firms drop representation of Saudi Arabia in wake of alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi

Among the lobbying firms still representing Saudi interests are Hogan Lovells, which has been paid $1.6 million since fall; and McKeon Group, led by Howard “Buck” McKeon, a former Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which has received $600,000.

Two law firms are offering advice on the kingdom’s efforts to build nuclear power plants: Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which got nearly $1.9 million between August 2018 and January; and King & Spalding, which received $946,000 in November. 

All the firms either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.

Close ties to Trump

The kingdom’s standing in Washington has been reinforced by the relationship between the crown prince and Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law. Mohammed and Kushner, both in their 30s, have worked together closely since early in the administration, a relationship that helped lead Trump to make Saudi Arabia the destination for his first foreign trip as president. 

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May that Kushner cut him and other top diplomats out of talks with Saudi rulers, including the crown prince. “I was certainly aware that there was a lot of communication between the two of them,” Tillerson said, referring to Kushner and Mohammed. 

Two princes: Kushner now faces a reckoning for Trump’s bet on the heir to the Saudi throne

Kushner said in April at a Time magazine forum that he did not “dispute American intelligence services’ recommendations” regarding Khashoggi’s murder. A spokesman for Kushner did not respond to a request for comment.

The Saudi government and its lobbyists have also been clients of the Trump International Hotel in Washington. 

Lobbyists with MSL/Qorvis booked 500 rooms over three months at the hotel after the 2016 election as the firm brought U.S. military veterans to Washington to speak out against a terrorism law the Saudis opposed, as The Washington Post has previously reported. 

Separately, two members of the Saudi government’s Capital Market Authority — including the nation’s top financial regulator — stayed at the hotel in February 2018, according to guest information obtained by The Post. 

Mohammed El Kuwaiz, the chairman of the Capital Market Authority and a leader in the Saudi government’s efforts to integrate the kingdom into the global economy, was a guest at the hotel on Feb. 1, along with another official from the group, Hanan Alshehri, the records show. 

The Saudi authority did not respond to questions about how many nights its officials have stayed at the hotel or how much money they have spent there. The Trump Organization, which says it directs its profit from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, did not respond to an inquiry about how it handled the visits by the Saudi officials. 

In May, shortly after Kuwaiz’s stay, the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies helped prepare him for a speech at a Bloomberg financial conference and for an announcement related to MSCI Inc., a stock market index, according to a public filing. Earlier this year, after a two-year push, Saudi stocks were included in the MSCI index for the first time, boosting the value of many companies. 

Hill and Knowlton, which has received about $680,000 from two Saudi entities since June, declined to comment. 

Trump’s staunch support for Saudi Arabia was on display at the recent G-20 summit of world leaders in Osaka, where the president said he was “very angry” about Khashoggi’s murder but declined to pin responsibility on the crown prince. 

Trump’s remarks commending the crown prince for combating extremism and improving opportunities for women drew praise from Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a think tank that says it does not receive money from the Saudi government. 

“He understands that it’s idiotic to focus on one issue only namely the Khashoggi tragedy,” Shihabi said last month of the president on Twitter.

A divide in Congress

While the Senate voted in December to directly condemn Mohammed over Khashoggi’s death, it has not followed up with threatened sanctions. 

Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 and an occasional Trump critic, revived the idea recently after the president called it “an honor” to meet with the crown prince at the G-20. 

“The President’s praise for MBS, the man who US intel says ordered or authorized the heinous murder of a WaPo columnist & Saudi dissident, sends the wrong message to the world,” he posted on Twitter. “It’s past time for Congress & the administration to impose sanctions for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

However, Romney was the only Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to reject a measure on June 25 that was intended to make it harder for the president to avoid congressional review of arms sales. 

“Ending support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen would undermine U.S. security interests in the region and embolden Iran,” Romney said in a statement. “At the same time, we must take action to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, press the Saudis to advance human rights, and insist that Saudi Arabia act to stop the spread of extremism in the region.”

Romney’s straddle reflects the traction the kingdom continues to have on Capitol Hill as it positions itself as the most important counterweight to Iran.

The military conflict that has ravaged Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, pits the exiled Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels aligned with Iran. U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led military coalition, which began in 2015 under President Barack Obama, includes providing aerial refueling for coalition warplanes and assisting with intelligence and logistical support.

Economic measures, largely imposed by the Saudi-led military coalition, have helped create what the United Nations has called the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Weapons produced by American companies have been tied to some of the most horrific civilian deaths in Yemen, including an airstrike that killed at least 40 children riding in a school bus for a field trip and an attack that killed 22 people attending a wedding.

Concerns over the U.S. hand in the carnage led the Senate last month to vote to bar Trump from using his emergency authority to complete $8 billion in arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and its close ally, the United Arab Emirates. The House is expected to take similar action this month. 

“Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen and the Khashoggi murder and attempted coverup heavily shape congressional views,” said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a co-sponsor of the resolution of disapproval.

However, the Senate measure did not pass with a veto-proof majority — and Trump has vowed to veto it. Pro-Saudi interests have tried to shift blame for the violence in Yemen to the Houthi rebels, have emphasized the kingdom’s humanitarian assistance and have pointed to threats posed by Iran.

On March 20, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Steve Daines (Mont.) received an email from former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), now a lobbyist at Hogan Lovells, addressing their “deep concerns regarding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.” Coleman declined to comment.

Separately, the McKeon Group distributed a thick report listing 1,091 acts of Houthi violence during a cease-fire in December and January, as well as news releases from the Saudi Embassy in Washington promoting the Saudi government’s efforts to promote the delivery of food and medical supplies in Yemen. The McKeon Group’s recent contacts with Senate Republicans on behalf of Saudi Arabia included Romney and James M. Inhofe (Okla.), both of whom voted against blocking the weapon sales. 

A spokeswoman for Inhofe said his “votes have always been based on his concern about checking Iranian influence in the region, protecting American service members and not expanding the definition of ‘hostilities.’ ”

Daines, who voted to end U.S. engagement in Yemen, also backed the weapon sales to Saudi Arabia.

“With Iran’s recent aggressive actions, the Senator believes it’s critical we work with our allies in the region to counter Iran’s support of terror around the world and any effort to develop nuclear weapons,” Daines spokeswoman Julia Doyle said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a frequent defender of the president, has been one of the few Republican lawmakers to publicly cite the U.N. report linking the Saudi royal family to Khashoggi’s murder. He directly condemned the crown prince during a recent confirmation hearing for Kelly Craft, Trump’s nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“There’s no amount of oil coming out of Saudi Arabia and there’s no threat from Iran that’s going to get me back on,” Graham said. “There is a price.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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Yemen’s humanitarian crisis mostly stems from policies pursued by Saudi-led coalition.