Federal Politics

Published — October 30, 2018

A Donald Trump appointee — also a Saudi government lobbyist — reassesses his roles

President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Richard F. Hohlt is considering retirement.

This article was co-published by NBC News and Public Radio International.

Introduction

One of President Donald Trump’s administration appointees — who simultaneously represents Saudi Arabia’s government as a registered foreign agent — is reevaluating his various roles.

Richard F. Hohlt, a longtime lobbyist who has served on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships since Trump appointed him to the post in June 2017, said in emails with the Center for Public Integrity that his upcoming 71st birthday has caused him to reconsider who he represents.

“I am currently in the process of reevaluating my representation, my participation, and retirement,” Hohlt said in an email.

Hohlt declined to speak by phone, and did not respond to questions about whether the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Turkey has contributed to his reassessment.

Hohlt, who first began representing Saudi Arabia in October 2016, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act records, remains an actively registered agent of the Saudi government, Department of Justice spokesman Marc Raimondi confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity.

Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and critic of Saudi leaders, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2.

Audio recordings indicate he died a gruesome death at the hands of several men tied to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader. Mohammed has called the murder of Khashoggi a “heinous, unjustified incident,” although some U.S. leaders, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have accused the Saudi crown prince of orchestrating the killing.  

Saudi officials have spent millions of dollars in recent years to influence politicians in the United States, hiring big-name K Street firms to represent their country. In 2017 alone, Saudi Arabia reported spending $27 million on firms registered under FARA, according to a report released today by the Center for International Policy.

Hohlt has not reported receiving any money from Saudi Arabia in 2018. Hohlt’s lobbying firm, which he solely owns, reported being paid more than $837,000 by Saudi Arabia in 2017, according to FARA filings with the Department of Justice.

While Hohlt’s recent earnings represent just a small fraction of Saudi government spending on U.S. influence efforts, his compensation stands out because Trump selected Hohlt to serve in his administration.

The White House confirmed Thursday that Hohlt continues to serve on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia didn’t respond to requests for comment about Hohlt.

More than two dozen firms remain registered under FARA to represent Saudi Arabia, according to the Center for International Policy report.

But since Khashoggi’s death, several lobbying firms have stopped representing Saudi Arabia, including BGR Government Affairs LLCGibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and The Glover Park Group LLP, according to FARA filings.

By law, lobbyists are required to submit documentation to the federal government within 10 days if their contracts come to an end, said Joshua Rosenstein, an attorney with Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock PC.

As part of his push to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., Trump has vowed several times to limit the influence of special interests and their lobbyists.

“I will issue a lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a FOREIGN GOVERNMENT! #DrainTheSwamp,” he tweeted in October 2016.

And upon taking office, Trump issued an executive order on ethics that included, among other things, a lifetime ban on executive branch appointees engaging in work that would require registration under FARA, among other restrictions on lobbyists.

Trump’s executive order doesn’t apply to part-time appointees such as Hohlt, and Trump has also issued ethics waivers to lobbyists who have taken full-time positions with his administration.

The President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, on which Hohlt serves, is essentially a part-time advisory body responsible for making final recommendations to the president for candidates for the prestigious White House fellowships, which President Lyndon B. Johnson created in 1964.

The fellowship candidates are usually accomplished professionals who are often given jobs in the White House and federal agencies.

Past White House fellows include Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, said Hohlt’s appointment at the very least appears to create a conflict of interest.

“For the general public, you want the president to be receiving advice from people whose best interests are the interests of the United States,” Smithberger said.

Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative for the Center for International Policy, said it’s a dangerous precedent for anybody working in the Trump administration to have formal ties to the Saudi government.

Anna Massoglia, a nonprofit organization and FARA researcher for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said she is monitoring Hohlt’s FARA filings and hopes to identify other instances of foreign agents working for or closely with the Trump administration.

Under the law, “you can represent the interests of a foreign government as well as holding yourself out as also representing the interests of the United States,” Massoglia said. “That seems like it could be dangerous in the wrong circumstances.”

Hohlt Global Group Inc. has never had a contract with the Saudi government. Rather, Hohlt’s work for the kingdom is based on a verbal commitment, Hohlt said.

Saudi Arabia appears to be Hohlt’s only foreign client, according to FARA filings.

Domestic lobbying disclosures show he has this year represented Altria Client Services LLC, a division of tobacco giant Altria, and some financial services companies. Past clients include Chevron, the Motion Picture Association of America, Sallie Mae Inc., BMW Financial Services of North America Inc. and global pharmaceutical behemoth Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., according to federal records.

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