In this photo taken Dec. 21, 2016, the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Trump's $200 million hotel inside the federally owned Old Post Office...
Alex Brandon

Trump’s hotel profited from clumsy Saudi-backed lobbying campaign

The timing of last night’s revelations could be better for Donald Trump. This week, we learned that a federal lawsuit is advancing challenging the president’s alleged “Emolument Clause” violations, in which Trump profits from foreign money. There are multiple lawsuits testing his practice, but the case filed by the Maryland and D.C. attorneys general has moved to the discovery phase, and subpoenas were issued on Tuesday.

The Justice Department continues to insist that the case has no merit. It’s against this backdrop that the Washington Post published a new report overnight on the money Trump’s D.C. hotel received thanks to a Saudi Arabian lobbying campaign.

Lobbyists representing the Saudi government reserved blocks of rooms at President Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel within a month of Trump’s election in 2016 – paying for an estimated 500 nights at the luxury hotel in just three months, according to organizers of the trips and documents obtained by The Washington Post.

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, according to veterans and organizers.

At issue was proposed legislation called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which Saudi officials were vehemently against. Ostensibly as part of their opposition, Saudi Arabia hired lobbyists and booked rooms at Trump’s hotel for U.S. veterans who were encouraged to pressure members of Congress on the legislation. Some of those veterans apparently didn’t realize what foreign country was footing the bill.

As the Post’s report makes clear, the original plan was to put up the veterans in a different D.C.-area hotel, but after Election Day, the lobbyists “switched most of their business to the Trump International Hotel.”

The lobbyists told the newspaper this was a coincidence.

In terms of the practical effects of the effort, the Saudi-backed lobbying campaign wasn’t exactly impressive. In fact, in some instances, it seemed almost literally pointless. From the Post’s article:

[Veterans] said they weren’t given detailed briefings about how the law ought to be amended, or policy briefings to leave behind for legislators to study.

The timing also was odd. They returned five times in January and February, when the issue was largely dormant and Washington was distracted by a new president’s inauguration. They were sent, again and again, for dead-end meetings with legislators who had made up their minds.

“The fourth time I saw Grassley’s guy, he was like, ‘Hey, what [else] is going on?’ We didn’t even talk about the bill,” said Robert Suesakul, an Army veteran from Iowa, about his fourth visit to the office of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). It had been clear after the first trip that Grassley wasn’t interested in amending the bill. “It didn’t make sense hitting these guys a fourth time.”

I emphasize this, not to criticize the quality of the lobbying, but because it’s hard not to wonder whether lobbying was actually the point of the Saudis’ investment.

All of this dovetails nicely with questions surrounding the American president’s toadying posture towards Riyadh. Trump, eager to swat down allegations of possible corruption, told reporters two weeks ago, “I have nothing to do with Saudi – just so you understand, I don’t make deals with Saudi Arabia. I don’t have money from Saudi Arabia. I have nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. I couldn’t care less…. Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with me.”

That was hard to believe at the time. The rhetoric looks a little worse now.

Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia

Trump's hotel profited from clumsy Saudi-backed lobbying campaign