Friday, 14 Dec 2018
Business

A Saudi-funded lobbyist paid 500 rooms at the Trump Hotel after the 2016 elections

Lobbyists representing the Saudi government have reserved blocks of rooms at President Trump 's DC hotel within one month after Trump' s election in 2016, or about 500 nights of the year. luxury hotel in just three months, according to travel organizers and documents obtained by The Washington. To post.

At the time, these lobbyists were booking a large number of hotel rooms in the Washington area as part of an unorthodox campaign offering American veterans a free trip to Washington. They then sent them to Capitol Hill to pressure a law to which the Saudis opposed, according to veterans and organizers.

At first, Saudi lobbyists sent the veterans to northern Virginia. Then, in December 2016, they transferred the bulk of their business to the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington. In total, lobbyists spent more than $ 270,000 to house six groups of veterans invited to the Trump Hotel, which Trump still owns.

These reservations fueled two federal lawsuits alleging that Trump had violated the Constitution by accepting undue payments from foreign governments.

According to records, the average daily rate at the hotel was $ 768. The lobbyists who organized the trips claim to have chosen the Trump Hotel strictly because it offered a discount on this rate and had available rooms, so as not to seduce Trump.

"Absolutely not, it has nothing to do with it, not a single detail," said Michael Gibson, a Maryland-based political officer who helped organize the trips.

Some of the veterans who stayed at the Trump Hotel said they were unaware of the role played by the Saudis in their travels. Now, they wonder if they have been used twice: not only to convey the message of someone else to Congress, but also to deliver business to the Trump organization.

"It made sense to the world when we found out that the Saudis paid for it," said Henry Garcia, a veteran of the San Antonio Navy who made three trips. He added that the organizers had never spoken of Saudi Arabia when they had invited him.

He thought the trips had been organized by other veterans, but that puzzled him because that group spent money like no other veterans group he worked with. There were private hotel rooms, open bars, free dinners. Then, said Garcia, one of the organizers who drank champagne in a minibar mentioned a Saudi prince.

"I said," Oh, we were just used to giving money to Trump, "Garcia said.

The Washington-based company Qorvis / MSLGroup, which has long represented the Saudi government in the United States, paid the organizers of "veteran air travel", according to lobbying declaration forms. The company declined to comment.

The Saudi Embassy did not answer any questions regarding this story. Hotel Trump executives, speaking under the guise of anonymity to discuss their clients, said they were unaware at the time that the company was not there. Saudi Arabia was ultimately paying the bill and declined to comment on the rates offered to customers.

Last year, several media reported the existence of trips to the Trump hotel funded by Saudi Arabia. But reviews of Saudi lobbyist emails, calendars and disclosure forms and interviews this autumn with two dozen veterans provide much more detail on the extent of travel and organizer interactions with veterans than what had been reported before.

These reports revealed a total of six trips, during which groups grew up after the initial visit and stays increased over time. La Poste estimated that the Saudi government had paid more than 500 nights in the Trump hotel rooms, based on planning documents and agendas given to veterans, as well as conversations with the organizers.

These transactions became ammunition for the plaintiffs in two lawsuits alleging that Trump had violated the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution by collecting payments from foreign governments. On Tuesday, Maryland and District Attorneys General assigned 13 Trump commercial entities and 18 competing companies to appear, mainly seeking out documents on foreign spending at the hotel.

Earlier this year, the Trump organization donated about $ 151,000 to the US Treasury, claiming that this was the amount of profits made by foreign governments, without explaining how it came to that figure. The Justice Ministry, which defends Trump in the lawsuits, says the Constitution does not ban current commercial transactions.

Next year, the transactions will also be reviewed by the new Democratic majority of the House. Democrats have said they want to understand Trump's trade relations with the Saudi government following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an editorial writer for the newspaper Post, in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

"Foreign countries understand that they can win the favor of the president by sponsoring his businesses," said Representative Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), Who will head the House's intelligence committee. next year. "This poses a real problem, as far as it can work." The White House declined to comment.

When these trips began in late 2016, the Saudi government was on a losing streak in Washington.

By the end of September, Congress had overruled President Barack Obama's veto and enacted a law to which the Saudis vehemently opposed: the Justice Against Terrorist Terrorism Act, called "JASTA". The new law, supported by the families of the victims of 9/11, has been opened. the door to an expensive litigation alleging that the Saudi government was responsible. Of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks, 15 were Saudi citizens.

In response, the Saudis have tried something new. To fight one of the most revered groups in the United States – the families of September 11 – they recruited allies from one another.

They went to look for veterans.

"Welcome Home Brother!" In December 2016, Jason E. Johns, a Wisconsin veteran and lobbyist, wrote to several veterans, according to identical e-mails shared by two veterans with The Post. Johns invited the veterans, whom he did not personally know, during a trip "to the assault of the hill" to lobby against the law.

"Lodging at Trump International Hotel, all expenses paid," writes Johns in emails. Johns' electronic signature indicated that he was with "N.M.L.B. Veterans Advocacy Group ", which is the Johns law firm based in Madison, Wisconsin.

According to documents filed by the Department of Justice, Johns was speaking on behalf of the Saudi Government. The long-time Saudist lobbyist, Qorvis, was paying Gibson, who in turn was paying Johns.

The first Johns trip in mid-November 2016 was small and short: about 22 veterans, who spent two nights at The Westin Crystal City, Virginia – on the other side of the Potomac River, separated from Capitol Hill by 4 km and a big traffic jam. Gibson – who helped organize the trips – said that another theft of information had occurred at the Westin later that same month.

Then, on December 2, 2016, Mr. Gibson told Qorvis to arrange another visit in a very short time, with participants expected to arrive in a few days. Gibson said the Westin was booked. He tried many other hotels.

"I decided right now" Why not call the Trump Hotel? ", Did he declare. "I said that I represented a client, a group of veterans. . . Did they offer discounts for veterans? And they said yes, they had availability. They also proposed a lower rate, he said.

After this trip, Gibson said, Qorvis asked him to arrange other trips for 2017. They did not tell him to return to the Trump Hotel. But the first trip had gone well. So he did it.

In total, there were five more trips in January and February, according to documents and interviews. The number of participants rose to 50 during a trip in late January, and trips were extended to three nights, according to diaries sent to veterans. It was also the call of the customers. Gibson said that he had never told any Trump hotel staff that the Saudis were paying: "I did it all with my professional credit card for my client. , Qorvis, and I brought a group of veterans to work on the legislation. "

Veterans who attended these trips said there were things that surprised them.

One was how much their group seemed to be spending money well.

"We have organized hundreds of veteran events and stayed at the Holiday Inns and ate the Ritz Crackers and Lemonade. And we stay at this hotel which costs $ 500 a night, "said Dan Cord, a veteran of the Navy. "I have never seen anything like it. They said to themselves, "That's what's cool! Wood on us.

Each trip included one and sometimes two dinners in a banquet hall of the Trump Hotel. Veterans said that there was usually an open bar in the room and that it was always supposed to end at a certain time – but often, they said, Johns would theatrically declare an extension.

He would say, "You know what, just put it for an hour! "Said Scott Bartels, a veteran of the Wisconsin Army who made three trips.

Veterans also said that their group appeared to be lobbying.

Veterans stated that they were told that the new law might provoke retaliation from other countries and that US veterans could be prosecuted abroad for what their units did during the war. They were given a few fact sheets – one with small print at the bottom saying, "This is distributed by Qorvis MSLGROUP on behalf of the Royal Saudi Embassy."

But they said they had not received detailed information on how the law should be changed, nor information on policies to leave to lawmakers.

The timing was so strange. They returned five times in January and February, when the issue was largely dormant and Washington was distracted by the inauguration of the new president. They were sent, again and again, to dead-end meetings with legislators who had made their decision.

"The fourth time I saw Grassley's guy, he was like [else] We did not even talk about the bill, "said Robert Suesakul, an Iowa Army veteran, about his fourth visit to the office of Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). It became apparent after the first trip that Grassley was not interested in amending the bill. "It does not make sense to hit those guys a fourth time."

Another problem: in some cases, congressional staff members confronted them because they knew who was funding these trips.

Even if the veterans did not do it.

"We went there and they went there." Are you veterans being bought? "Suesakul said.

In a telephone interview, Johns said that it was disappointing to hear veterans claim that they were "fooled" and that he had always made it clear, at the dinner party that he opening, which the Saudi government paid. He added that present veterans had all learned that if they did not like it, they could go home.

"I said," Look, I'm a veterinary colleague and I work for a PR agency here, and Saudi Arabia funded, "said Johns.

Another organizer, veteran of the army, Dustin Tinsley, did not remember Johns telling everyone about Saudi involvement. He said that he thought the veterans should have done their own research or ask them.

"When I was asked directly:" Does Saudi Arabia pay that? ", I would say yes, and on [all of them] not one of them said, "I do not want to be part of it," Tinsley said.

Several veterans disputed Johns' story, claiming that they had not been informed of the source of the funding – or that the news had only been revealed later, after having been interrogated several times or after consuming alcohol.

"One of the guys was a bit drunk," said Gary Ard, a veteran of the Texas Navy, describing his meeting with one of Johns' assistants after he drank at the Trump Hotel. "He raises his hands somehow and says," Thank you, Saudi prince! "

Ard left after two trips. He said he felt guilty of having unwittingly collected political information for a foreign power.

"We take this conversation from heart to heart [with legislators], write it down and give it to a group of people I do not know, "said Ard. "And my fear in this regard is that we will create a reservoir of ideas about what members of Congress, what senators can be approached and what their mentality is. And it's completely wrong. "

The last trip to the Trump Hotel took place in mid-February 2017, after early reports revealed that Johns was a Saudi entrepreneur. Johns himself said he was not sure about the cost of the trips: the bills for the hotel rooms did not fit him, and he had never seen how much the rooms cost.

In a document filed with the Ministry of Justice – asked US companies working for foreign powers -, Qorvis said he spent $ 190,000 for accommodation at the Trump Hotel, as well as an additional $ 82,000 for catering and parking.

The amount for accommodation is approximately $ 360 per person per night, which is well below the average rate of the Trump Hotel for the same period. In the financial records accidentally published by the General Service Administration, which owns the building, the Trump organization reported receiving an average daily rate of $ 768.67 for the months of January and February, a price inflated by the strong asks around the inauguration.

Since February 2017, Saudi customers have improved the results of two other Trump hotels. In Chicago, Trump Hotel's internal statistics revealed a sharp increase in Saudi Arabia's customer base after Trump took office. In New York this year, the general manager of the Trump Hotel in Central Park said that only one stay of some Saudi clients – traveling with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman – was so lucrative that he allowed the hotel to make profits for the quarter.

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