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Saudis Funded Washington Trip for Veterans to Support Saudi Interests and Stay in Trump Hotel
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6 Dec 2018 05:34 PM EST

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Trump International Hotel (Image source: Ted Eytan via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

In an effort to sort out the details of a lawsuit against Donald Trump and his business, deeper ties to Saudi Arabia may have been discovered. The emoluments lawsuit is pointing to a veterans trip to Washington that was funded by Saudis to support their interests on Capitol Hill with all travelers staying in Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. 

Within a month of Trump winning the 2016 election, lobbyists who were representing the Saudi government reserved blocks of hotel rooms at Trump's hotel. Collectively, according to trip organizers and documents, they paid for an estimated 500 nights at the hotel in just three months.

 

The lobbyists offered U.S. veterans a free trip to Washington to go to Capitol Hill and lobby against a law that was opposed by the Saudis. 

Initially, the veterans stayed in Northern Virginia. But after Trump won the presidency, most of the lobbyists' business was relocated to Trump International Hotel. They spent more than $270,000 for the veterans to stay there.

 

The average nightly rate at that time in 2016 was $768. The lobbyists claim they chose that hotel solely because it offered a discounted rate and because rooms were available, not to earn favors from Trump. 

"Absolutely not. It had nothing to do with that. Not one bit," insisted Michael Gibson, who helped organize the trips and is a Maryland-based political operative.

 

Some of the veterans who made this trip claim to have not been told that it was being funded by the Saudis. They wonder if they were used both to deliver the Saudi message to Congress and to bring more business to Trump.  

“It made all the sense in the world when we found out that the Saudis had paid for it,” said San Antonio Navy veteran Henry Garcia, who went on three of the Washington trips. He claims to have never been told anything about Saudi Arabia.

 

He had thought the trips were organized by other veterans but was confused that a veterans group would have so much money to throw around with the expensive hotel rooms, open bars, and free dinners.  

Then an organizer who'd been drinking mentioned a Saudi prince. "I said, 'Oh, we were just used to give Trump money,' " recalled Garcia.

 

The Saudi government was and is represented in the U.S. by the Washington firm Qorvis/MSLGroup.  It was the firm who paid the organizers of the "veterans fly-in" trips. This was confirmed by lobbying disclosure forms. 

The Saudi-funded trips were reported initially last year, but more details about the trips and interactions between organizers and veterans has been gleaned from emails, agendas, and disclosure forms.

 

There were six trips in all, with the groups becoming larger as time went on and the stays increasing as well. It was estimated that it amounted to more than 500 nights in the Trump hotel overall. 

The reason the veterans trips are coming to light again is because of two lawsuits that allege Trump violated the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution by taking payments from foreign governments.

 

The attorneys general of Maryland and D.C. subpoenaed 13 Trump business entities and 18 competing businesses, in a search for records of foreign spending at Trump's Washington hotel. 

The Trump Organization donated close to $151,000 to the U.S. Treasury earlier in 2018, stating it was the profit from foreign governments but didn't explain the math behind that number. Trump has been defended by the Justice Department who says the Constitution doesn't bar routine business transactions.

 

They'll have more explaining to do in 2018, as the Democratic majority in the House has said they want to understand the connections between Trump's business and the Saudi government with what seems to be a coverup of Jamal Khashoggi's murder. 

"Foreign countries understand that they can curry favor with the president by patronizing his businesses," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who will be leading the House Intelligence Committee next year. "It presents a real problem in that it may work."

 

The veterans were recruited because of a new 2016 law known as JASTA (Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act). Congress overrode former President Barack Obama's veto to pass the law.  

It was backed by the families of 9/11 victims, alleging that the Saudi government should share the blame for the terrorism on that date with 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudis. Lobbyists recruited veterans to battle the families of the victims.

 

"Welcome Home Brother!" wrote Army veteran and Wisconsin lobbyist Jason E. Johns, in a letter to several veterans in December 2016. He invited his fellow veterans on a trip to "storm the Hill" to fight the law. 

"Lodging at the Trump International Hotel, all expense [sic] paid," the emails continued. His signature said he was with "N.M.L.B. Veterans Advocacy Group," his law firm in Madison, Wisconsin.

 

But he wasn't doing this on behalf of a veterans group as it looked — he was doing this on behalf of Gibson, who was doing it on behalf of Qorvis.  

After previously using a Westin hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, Gibson says he made the switch because that hotel and many others were booked.

 

"I just out of the blue decided, 'Why not call the Trump hotel?' " he recalled. "I said I was representing a client, a group of veterans. ... Did they offer any discounts for veterans? And they said yes, they did have availability." They gave him a lower rate as well.  

"We've done hundreds of veterans events and we've stayed in Holiday Inns and eaten Ritz crackers and lemonade. And we're staying in this hotel that costs $500 a night," explained Marine veteran Dan Cord.

 

"I'd never seen anything like this. They were like, 'That's what's so cool! Drink on us.' " And they did, with open bars and dinners in the hotel's banquet room. 

The veterans were told the new law might lead to other countries retaliating and might even bring U.S. veterans to be prosecuted overseas for what they had done while at war. Fact sheets they were given said in small print at the bottom, "This is distributed by Qorvis MSLGROUP on behalf of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia."

 

A required filing with the Justice Department states that Qorvis estimated they spent $190,000 on lodging at the Trump hotel and $82,000 more on catering and parking. This works out to $360 per person per night for lodging, much lower than the Trump hotel's average rate.  

Since Trump took office, there has been an increased number of Saudi customers at Trump's Chicago hotel, and the general manager of Trump's New York hotel said a single stay by Saudis this year, who were traveling with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, brought in so much money, it helped them turn a profit for that quarter.

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