Saudi lobbyist, Republican fundraiser

Last year, the former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, one of the Republican Party’s greatest fundraisers, had a request for 30 Republican congressional staffers. Coleman had helped many of their bosses’ campaigns in his role at the top of an organization that has raised and spent over $165 million in the 2020 election cycle.

“At this time,” Coleman wrote, “the Kingdom would appreciate if your congressman would publicly salute this step and call out the Houthis for their continued obstruction of the political process.” He was promoting a Saudi ceasefire initiative in Yemen that the Houthi rebels ultimately rejected. The rebels demanded that such a deal would force the Saudis to completely lift the blockade of Yemen, which had killed more than 370,000 people.

His request — “on behalf of the Saudi Embassy” — was not an isolated request. Coleman wrote more than 1,000 emails to House and Senate staffers in 2021 and 2022 as part of his paid work for Saudi Arabia. Coleman and several of his law firm colleagues are registered as Foreign Agents of the Kingdom. Emails, as well as details of Saudi Arabia’s $175,000-a-month contract with Hogan Lovells, the law firm, are all contained in documents submitted to the Justice Department. The contract is part of the Saudi government’s robust lobbying operation that saw the kingdom spend $21 million last year to gain influence in Washington, public documents show.

Coleman enjoys a unique position of influence over congressional Republicans. He helped found the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, where he serves as chairman of the board, according to a current biography on his law firm profile. Coleman is also president of the American Action Network, a tax-exempt “welfare group” — an IRS designation that allows for political advocacy and requires no funding disclosure. In other words, it’s a bunch of black money.

In addition to sharing offices and staff, American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund have close financial ties. AAN, an IRS-designated 501(c)(4) group, has described CLF as its “super PAC sister” in promotional materials. The arrangement – ​​a pipeline of black money to the PAC – is common, allowing the tax-exempt group to funnel black money into explicitly political PAC coffers.

AAN contributed approximately $30 million of CLF’s $165 million war chest during the 2020 cycle. This pattern repeated election cycle after election cycle. Since 2011, more than $94 million in AAN dark money – overseen by a registered agent for Saudi Arabia – has flowed into the CLF’s coffers and from there into advertisements and other candidate support Republicans in Congress.

An AAN spokesperson said its fundraising was entirely national. “Unequivocally, we have never solicited or accepted foreign funds,” said Calvin Moore, the spokesperson. “I will also add that Senator Coleman is a valued member of our board of directors but is not involved in fundraising for the organization.” (Coleman, Hogan Lovells and CLF did not respond to requests for comment.)

“The fact that you have a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia involved in groups influencing US elections is just a step up from those more direct roles that are explicitly prohibited.”

A campaign finance transparency expert was troubled by the movement of funds from a black money group to a super PAC. “This black money exchange is a long-standing thing,” said Anna Massoglia, editorial and investigative manager at OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics.

Massoglia noted that foreigners are not allowed to interfere in elections or donate directly to campaigns, and said: “The fact that you have a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia involved in groups influencing the American elections is only one step away from these more direct roles which are explicitly prohibited.

As Coleman worked lucrative lobbying contracts for Riyadh, AAN produced favorable messages about Saudi Arabia. The group, and its related American action forum, where Coleman is listing as “advice”, praised Saudi Arabia. In a 2015 blog post on the AAN website, under the banner “Standard noteColeman promoted Saudi Arabia, alongside China and Indonesia, as models of “moderate Islam” and enemies of the Islamic State. And a 2016 article on the AAF website praised the economic reforms proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “A reformed Saudi economy could be good for oil markets” declared the title.

Coleman’s dual role as chairman of an organization that funds campaign ads and a lobbyist puts him in an influential position. Many Congressional Republicans, especially those in close races, were aided in their elections by the CLF and then directly solicited by Coleman on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Although there is no evidence that Saudi money – or any other foreign money – has been funneled through AAN and CLF in ads supporting Republican candidates, GOP members of the House and Senate are forming coherent voting blocs in favor of Saudi interests.

Last September, the House voted an amendment presented by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, calling on the United States to end virtually all aid to the Saudi war in Yemen. Only 11 House Republicans voted for of the amendment and 196 opposed it.

A similar amendment the same month, introduced by Rep. Gregory Meeks, DN.Y., included slightly softer language, calling for a suspension of support for Saudi Air Force units involved in airstrikes against Yemeni civilians, but with several major exceptions. On the Republican side, only 7 deputies in the Chamber vote for the amendment and 203 opposed it.

And a vote in the senate in December on a resolution introduced by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., declaring toothless “congressional disapproval” of arms sales to Saudi Arabia saw only two “yes” votes from Republicans, the Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Paul himself.

Coleman and his employer, Hogan Lovells, are explicit about their role in helping to generate congressional support for Saudi Arabia’s interests.

Coleman and other Hogan Lovells employees working on the Saudi account engage in “specific advocacy assignments with U.S. government officials, members of Congress and their staffs, representatives of media organizations and /or others involved in legislation, regulation, public or public policy”. business matters, and/or in other activities of interest to the foreign principal,” reads a March Disclosure by Hogan Lovells at the Department of Justice.

Coleman is even clearer about his own role and opinions in interviews, including two following the murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate. Days after the murder, Coleman was one of the few American public figures willing to go on cable news to defend Saudi Arabia.

In an interview on CNN, he was asked if he would continue to work for Saudi Arabia. When pressed, Coleman replied, “Let’s make sure we don’t undermine a strategic relationship that’s important to the security of the United States.” In November 2018, a month after the murder, Coleman, faced with pointed questions from a local CBS reporter, said he did not advise Saudi officials but instead worked with members of Congress to ensure that Saudi interests were considered, specifically citing Saudi interest in containing Iran’s influence.

Others see Coleman’s role as far more problematic.

“The infiltration of Saudi money and influence into our government via lobbyists like Norm Coleman is not only outrageous and shameful.”

“The infiltration of Saudi money and influence into our government via lobbyists like Norm Coleman is not only outrageous and shameful; it is downright dangerous to our national security and the survival of our democracy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group founded by Khashoggi to champion democracy, human rights and Right wing state. “Coleman is a Saudi government agent, representing the interests of the Saudi government, as he literally directs the money to select Republican candidates. This should bother every American, Republican or Democrat.

Other officials may not be able to follow Coleman’s own path from Congress to foreign agent. A bipartisan group of House members introduced new legislation, “Foreign Influence Control Act.”

The law would impose a lifetime ban on senior officers, presidents, vice presidents, senior executives and members of Congress from lobbying for a foreign principal.

So far, Growing awareness on the role of foreign governments and their agents in the United States appear to have had little impact on Coleman’s dual role as Saudi foreign agent and Republican fundraiser. The Congressional Leadership Fund is already well into another election cycle, having raised more than $171 million to support Republican candidates as of November’s midterms. More than $33 million of that amount came from 23 deals of the black money group chaired by Coleman, the American Action Network. The origin of these funds remains a mystery.

About Leni Loberns

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