Democrats’ promised Trump probes threaten to sweep up Mideast allies

Key US allies could be caught in the crosshairs as Democrats plan extensive investigations into President Donald Trump’s policies and business dealings should they win in November.

al-monitor White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (C) arrives to join US President Donald Trump and the rest of the US delegation to meet with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Oct 11, 2018

The prospect of a so-called blue wave in next month’s midterm elections could put key US allies in the Middle East in an uncomfortable position as Democrats pursue investigations that have been blocked in a Republican-held Congress.

While Democrats only have an 18% chance of taking the Senate, their likelihood of sweeping the House currently stands at 78%, according to polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight. And they’ve made no secret about their intent to issue dozens of subpoena requests targeting the Donald Trump administration.

To date, Republicans on the highly politicized House Oversight Committee have blocked at least 64 subpoena requests, many of which implicate major US allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey.

Trump family business

Democrats have threatened to launch an investigation into Trump’s vow to donate foreign profits from his company to the US Treasury. They argue that the Trump Organization’s business ties in foreign countries pose “numerous conflicts of interest” and potentially violate the Constitution.

According to a Time magazine investigation last year, Trump notably has business dealings in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Egypt and Turkey.

Norman Eisen, the chairman of the board of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former special counsel in the Barack Obama White House, has filed a federal lawsuit against Trump over his refusal to divest from his business. Eisen argues that Trump’s foreign business ties pose an unconstitutional conflict of interest, as they could influence US policy.

“From day one to the present day, one must ask whether his foreign policy has been tainted, dented and distorted by his financial connections,” Eisen told Al-Monitor.

Trump’s business relationship with the Saudis in particular has come under renewed scrutiny following his delayed response to Saudi Arabia’s alleged abduction and possible murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“I don’t know why Trump made his first [foreign] trip to Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told reporters while discussing Khashoggi on Wednesday. “Clearly he wants to have an unusually close relationship with the Saudis. I hope it doesn’t have to do with any of his business interests in Saudi Arabia.”

Eisen was blunter.

“The president’s, in my view, bizarre behavior with respect to the disappearance and likely death of Jamal Khashoggi is influenced by his business connections and his family’s business connections with the Saudis,” he said.

Eisen also noted that Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries excluded countries with ties to the Trump Organization. The administration, however, has argued that Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, along with North Korea and Venezuela, were singled out for poor cooperation with the United States, terrorist activity and failure to document their travelers. The Supreme Court upheld the policy by a 5-4 vote in June.

“He excluded countries like Saudi or Egypt that, historically, at least represented a far greater threat on American soil, where he had business ties and only included countries where he didn’t,” Eisen argued.

The Saudis have also aggressively made use of visits to Trump’s struggling hotel chain. According to a Washington Post report this month, Trump’s New York hotel revenue increased in the first quarter of this year following a last-minute visit from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Post also notes that Saudi-based customers have booked 218 nights at the president’s Chicago hotel this year, a 169% increase from 2016.

Kuwait and Bahrain, meanwhile, both opted to hold their national days at Trump’s Washington hotel following his election.

Two pro-Israel advocacy organizations, the World Zionist Organization and Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, also spend $1.6 million per year leasing office space from Trump in New York, according to a database compiled by Forbes. However, Hadassah opted not to attend a 2016 Hanukkah party at Trump’s Washington hotel. 

“It’s hard to predict how that impacts the president’s decisions made by others in his administration and whether he’s aware of these foreign governments or entities staying in his properties,” Scott Amey, the general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, told Al-Monitor. “It would be nice that there is more disclosure there and that we can allay any fears that people have that President Trump is creating policies dependent on who’s staying at his hotels or swinging golf clubs at his golf courses.”

Kushner family ties 

Separately, Democrats also want to subpoena ​Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, for his family’s business ties with the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The Washington Post reported in February that both countries sought to use the Kushner family’s real estate business to manipulate him. According to the Post, the UAE tried to leverage the Kushner family’s search for investors against him.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed allegedly boasted to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan that Kushner was “in his pocket,” according to a March report in the Intercept. According to the report, Kushner spoke with Prince Mohammed and discussed the prince's critics shortly before the Saudi crackdown on royal family members and business elites deemed insufficiently loyal.

Democratic activists have begun tying that report to Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“As we learn more about what the administration knew and when it knew it, can't help but recall reporting from March that Kushner passed US intel to the Saudi Crown Prince to facilitate his purge,” Ned Price, former CIA officer and member of Obama's National Security Council, tweeted today. “Congress must demand answers re. any Kushner role here.”

Conversely, a July report in the Intercept revealed that Qatar has failed to get on Kushner’s good side. The Intercept reported that Qatar and Kushner’s business failed to arrive at a $500 million investment deal. Shortly after, the White House appeared to side with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their blockade against Qatar.

Michael Flynn

Democrats would also like to get their hands on a proposal from Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for a proposal to construct nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia.

Although Flynn resigned after a month on the job and subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to special counsel Robert Mueller, both Democrats and Republicans fear that the Trump administration intends to pursue a civil nuclear deal with Riyadh with too few restrictions, potentially paving the way for a nuclear weapons program.

Flynn was also under investigation for failing to disclose his lobbying activities on behalf of Turkey.

Israeli intelligence firms

Democrats have also requested a subpoena on the private Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube for its alleged dirty ops campaign against Obama-era officials responsible for negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. The New Yorker reported in August that a memo had circulated among Trump White House officials similar to Black Cube’s assertions that the former Obama officials were working to undermine Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Other Israeli intelligence firms may be caught in the crosshairs of a Democratic House as well. The New York Times reported this month that Mueller is looking into reports that Trump campaign official Rick Gates solicited the Israeli company Psy-Group to bolster support for Trump’s 2016 campaign by spreading disinformation on social media.

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