Accusations, lawsuits challenge Qatar’s multimillion-dollar lobbying, ‘damage control’ PR
WASHINGTON - A multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign by the Qatari government drew accusations that it waged a smear campaign against a businessman close to US President Donald Trump who was trying to sway Trump against the Gulf country.
Qatar has hired 35 US lobbying firms and paid them a total of at least $19.5 million since June 2017, records filed by the firms and seen by The Arab Weekly indicate. The lobbyists contacted hundreds of members of the US Congress and dozens of journalists and Trump administration officials while spending millions of dollars on advertising that promotes Qatar as a US ally, records show.
Qatar hired Michael Sitrick, a Los Angeles public relations specialist in “damage control,” in July. Sitrick has been representing Harvey Weinstein since last year when dozens of women accused the movie producer of sexual assault and abuse. Weinstein is facing criminal charges in New York in relation to the accusations.
Qatar hired Sitrick as a “public communications adviser and consultant,” records state. Qatar’s spending in this regard is a huge increase from the $2.3 million it spent on average in the two preceding years and made Qatar’s US lobbying operation one of the most expensive by a foreign government, putting it on a level with China and Japan, lobbying records show.
Qatar’s campaign has been coloured by lawsuits charging that the country hacked the personal e-mail accounts of Elliott Broidy a prominent Washington adversary and leaked their contents to journalists.
Broidy was a fundraiser for the Republican Party and close associate of Trump. He sued Qatar and others in March, alleging they waged a smear campaign to stop him from advocating against Qatar and in favour of the United Arab Emirates.
A second lawsuit by Broidy, filed July 23, claims Qatar carried out “an expansive influence operation” in Washington since 2017 and “a highly sophisticated, orchestrated effort to subvert our democracy by silencing its critics and chilling their free speech.” Qatar’s campaign aims to send “a clear warning to future potential critics about the dangers to those who dare to cross the tiny, but extraordinarily wealthy, nation,” the lawsuit said.
The accusations against Qatar are contained in a lawsuit Broidy filed against a former UN under-secretary general whom Broidy accuses of orchestrating the distribution of his stolen e-mail to US news outlets. One news story written after the alleged hack of Broidy’s e-mail account revealed that he had paid $1.6 million to a former model for Playboy magazine who said Broidy, who is married, got her pregnant. The article led Broidy to resign from the Republican National Committee.
Qatar has rejected Broidy’s claims and asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit filed in March, saying that US courts have no jurisdiction over foreign governments.
In June, a lobbying firm sued by Broidy said it would stop representing Qatar. The firm, Stonington Strategies, had been paid $1.5 million by Qatar since September 2017 and sought to arrange for members of the US Congress to visit the country.
Qatar began its massive lobbying campaign in June 2017, just after Trump accused Doha of funding “radical ideology.” Trump took the side of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others when they imposed a blockade on Qatar. Trump said Qatar had financed terrorism “at a very high level” and that “the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding.”
Documents filed in 2017 with the US Justice Department state that Qatar hired Avenue Strategies Global, a firm founded by a former Trump campaign manager and including a former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to “provide research, government relations and strategic consulting services.” The contract said services “may include communications with members of Congress and congressional staff, executive branch officials, the media and other individuals.”
Qatar also contracted the services of Information Management Services, a firm run by Jeff Klueter, a former researcher for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Associated Press said that Information Management Services’ activities included “digging into political opponents’ past and comments for incriminating or simply embarrassing material.”
Qatar paid $2.5 million to hire John Ashcroft, attorney general under US President George W. Bush, to help it “combat global terrorism” and “comply with international financial regulations,” Qatar’s contract stated.
The White House’s inconsistent statements over foreign policy and Trump’s erratic decision-making process offer influencers, including PR firms and lobbyists, the opportunity to claim they helped sway the position of the White House.
That was the case when Trump started easing his criticism of Qatar. By January, he was even praising Qatar for its “action to counter terrorism and extremism in all forms.” Trump stepped up his praise in April at a well-publicised White House meeting with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, calling him a “big advocate” against terrorism financing and a “great gentleman” and “a friend of mine.”
Since the April meeting, Qatar has expanded its arsenal of lobbyists. In May it hired Michael Mukasey, who also was an attorney general under Bush, to resolve the country’s dispute with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain over their blockade.
In June, lobbyist Jim Moran, who was a member of the US House of Representatives from 1991-2015, sent e-mails to dozens of his former colleagues, urging them to appeal to the Saudi Embassy in Washington to stop the blockade of Qatar. Moran included in his e-mails a letter for members of Congress to sign and send to the embassy. Several members of the House signed and sent the letter, records show.