In the first few months after Donald Trump was elected president, lobbyists funded by the Saudi government booked around 500 nights at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., according to the Washington Post. The rooms were largely for U.S. military vets, who appear to have been used as pawns in a scheme to funnel money from the Saudi government to the Trump Organization.
This story begins with a group offering vets free trips (funded by the Saudis) to the capital in order to lobby lawmakers in late 2016. The target of their ire was the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government. It became law in September of 2016 when Congress overrode Barack Obama’s veto and the Saudi lobbying effort began shortly thereafter.
The vets, who were told that the bill would allow other countries to charge U.S. troops for crimes committed overseas, stayed in two non-Trump hotels on their first trips to Washington. But then the organizer found an opening at Trump’s lavish spot in downtown D.C. Michael Gibson, who helped run the trips on behalf of the Saudis, said this had nothing to do with the regime’s trying to curry favor with a new U.S. president. He also said the rooms, which averaged $768 a night at the time, were provided at a discount.
The stories the vets tell indicate that those footing the bill were unconcerned about money, though:
Each trip included one, and sometimes two, dinners in a Trump hotel banquet room. There was usually an open bar in the room, veterans said, and it was always supposed to end at a certain hour — but often, they said, Johns would theatrically declare an extension.
“He’d be like, ‘You know what, just put it on for another hour!’” said Scott Bartels, an Army veteran from Wisconsin who went on three trips.
The lobbying also seemed to be an afterthought, some of the vets told the Post:
[T]hey 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.
Why spend $270,000 on hotel rooms and food and then execute a shoddy lobbying operation? Maybe because spending the money was the point.
“Foreign countries understand that they can curry favor with the president by patronizing his businesses,” Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told the Post. “It presents a real problem, in that it may work.”
It’s not hard to make the case that the Saudi effort to curry favor did work. Trump’s first trip abroad as president took him to Saudi Arabia; he publicly sided with the Saudis in a dispute with Qatar; and, most notably, he has refused to stand up to the Saudi regime after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. For Saudi Arabia, the money spent at Trump’s hotel must seem well worth it.