Politics

Saudi Lobbyists in D.C. Caught in Pompeo Pickle

Some bail, while others wait to see what comes of Mike Pompeo’s trip

President Donald Trump meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House in March 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

Washington lobbyists still on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s payroll amid fallout from the presumed death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are awaiting the outcome of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to the region this week before making any further moves.

Pompeo met Tuesday in Riyadh with Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the brash young second-in-command of the royal government, and planned to head Wednesday to Turkey where Khashoggi was last seen.

Already, three of the Saudi government’s most prominent lobbying firms in Washington — Glover Park Group, Harbour Group and BGR Group — have severed ties with the lucrative foreign client, which last year spent more than $17 million on U.S. influence campaigns, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The remaining members of the kingdom’s lobbying team are waiting to see what comes of Pompeo’s trip, said people familiar with the matter. Should relations between the two countries break down, the K Street shops would be under additional pressure, including from their existing clients and contacts on Capitol Hill, to drop the Saudis as a client.

But dropping one of the globe’s biggest K Street power players would have an obvious financial downside, especially given the damage control needed now.

“This is a country that spends big on lobbying,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks foreign and domestic lobbying. “Presumably the numbers we see this year will go up and likely more than they would have without this recent event.”

In Washington, when clients are in trouble, that’s when they need lobbyists the most and tend to spend the most money.

Watch: Trump Suggests ‘Rogue Killers’ Could Be Responsible for Saudi Journalist’s Death

The Saudi government also spends heavily buying weapons from U.S. defense contractors.

“Their millions spent on lobbying is the tip of the iceberg in terms of their investment in the United States,” Krumholz said.

Former Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman leads a team from his law and lobbying firm, Hogan Lovells, in representing the Saudi government, which is under contract to pay the firm $1.5 million for 2018, according to disclosures filed with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Coleman did not respond to a request for comment about the status of his work for the kingdom, and a representative of the firm declined to comment. An official with the Saudi embassy in Washington also did not respond to a request seeking comment about which firms represent the country in the United States.

The Saudi government has been a pivotal Middle East ally of the United States, but the disappearance and alleged killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has sent the longstanding rapport into a potential crisis.

Some of D.C.’s biggest lobbying shops appear to continue to represent the kingdom including Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which has a contract valued at $125,000 a month, according to disclosures filed with the Justice Department. A lobbyist for Brownstein said, “We are continuing our representation.”

Representatives for MSL Qorvis, a longtime lobbying firm for the Saudi government, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did officials with the CGCN Group or the Hohlt Group.

The Harbour Group did not respond to a request for comment, and a lobbyist with the Glover Park Group declined comment. Jeffrey Birnbaum, a spokesman for the BGR Group, said the firm was “no longer working for Saudi Arabia,” but did not elaborate.

Sources familiar with the situation said the shops that stopped working for the Saudi government did so after Turkish officials alleged that Saudi officials interrogated and then killed Khashoggi, disposing of his remains in pieces.

Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, was a contributing columnist for the Washington Post.

The incident has sparked the ire of some in Congress.

Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut wrote an op-ed Monday in The Washington Post saying the situation should force the United States to revisit its relationship with the Saudis.

“When I came to Congress a little more than 10 years ago, support for Saudi Arabia was broad and bipartisan. But now, as the new crown prince engages in increasingly reckless behavior, more and more of us are wondering whether our ally’s actions are in our own best interests,” wrote Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel. “Here’s the bottom line: The Saudis are not telling us the truth.”

As for Sen. Lindsey Graham, he plans to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” in the aftermath of the disappearance of Khashoggi.

“You know, we deal with bad people all the time, but this is in our face. I feel personally offended. They have nothing but contempt for us,” the South Carolina Republican said Tuesday morning. “Why would you put a guy like me and the president in this box?”

President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he had taken a call with Crown Prince Salman, during Pompeo’s visit, and that the prince told Trump “that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”

Salman has been praised as a modernizer but criticized for his intolerance of dissent and for his unilateral actions in the Middle East.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. 

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.