Lobbying

Published — December 12, 2018 Updated — June 4, 2019 at 11:42 am ET

Trump administration appointee quits lobbying for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center top, watches President Donald Trump, right, walk past as Brazil's President Michel Temer, second from left, stands by while leaders gather for the group photo at the start of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP/Ricardo Mazalan)

Richard Hohlt had served the White House while earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Saudis

This article is co-published by NBC News.

Introduction

One of President Donald Trump’s administration appointees has stopped representing Saudi Arabia to the U.S. government, according to filings with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Richard F. Hohlt, a longtime lobbyist who has served on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, a part-time advisory body, since Trump appointed him to the post in June 2017, suspended his representation of the Saudi government on Nov. 1, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act filings he submitted to the Department of Justice on Nov. 30.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained the filings, which are not yet posted publicly, this week.

Hohlt did not respond to multiple phone and email messages seeking comment. On Oct. 26, he told the Center for Public Integrity he was reevaluating his various roles, although he declined at the time to address whether the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Turkey has contributed to his reassessment.

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

Update, June 4, 2019A new FARA filing, dated May 31, indicates Hohlt is serving as counsel to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, where he advises on “public affairs and legislative interpretation.” While the recent filing states that Hohlt doesn’t lobby, advocate — or receive compensation — in his current role, it also states that his presence at meetings might “indirectly benefit” the Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

Hohlt, who first began representing Saudi Arabia in October 2016, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act records, “served as a legislative/public advisor to the Embassy, and provided them with advice on legislative and political affairs strategies.”

Hohlt also may have attended meetings “generally related to the interests” of Saudi Arabia, according to FARA filings.

The Saudi government paid Hohlt Group, which Hohlt solely owns, $780,000 in consulting fees this year, according to FARA filings.

In 2017, Hohlt Group reported receiving more than $837,000 from the Saudis.

Saudi officials have spent tens of 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 lobbying, government affairs and public relations firms registered under FARA, according to a report released recently by the Center for International Policy.

Since Khashoggi’s death, several firms have stopped representing Saudi Arabia, including BGR Government Affairs LLC, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and The Glover Park Group LLP, according to FARA filings. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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.

Trump has openly questioned whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had anything to do with Khashoggi’s murder, saying the prince “vehemently” denied any involvement.

In a statement last month, Trump said intelligence agencies were continuing to look at information in the case, “but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” he said.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., both said the crown prince is guilty of Khashoggi’s death.

“You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS,” Graham told a pool of reporters last week in reference to Mohammed bin Salman.

Nihad Awad, a close colleague of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, reaches out to touch an image of his friend at an event on Nov. 2, 2018, in Washington, D.C., to remember Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Khashoggi and other journalists and news organizations on Tuesday named TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.” The magazine wrote that Khashoggi was murdered for telling the truth about his country’s government.

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether Hohlt continues to serve on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

The commission is 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. Fellowship alumni include Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.

By law, lobbyists for foreign entities are required to inform the federal government within 10 days if their contracts come to an end, Joshua Rosenstein, an attorney with Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock PC, previously told the Center for Public Integrity.

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.

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