WASHINGTON – Over the last weeks, a string of allegations involving the rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf and influential American Jews considered close to U.S. President Donald Trump have been making headlines in D.C. and elsewhere.
The claims raise suspicions that money changed hands in exchange for political influence, and some are being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is in charge of a probe into alleged foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Haaretz has been covering this developing story for months. However, in recent weeks, the scandal expanded after a number of related subplots were exposed.
It now involves not only the regional rivals Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, but also Trump’s private attorney, Michael Cohen, and an Israeli company specializing in private intelligence.
Here are some key questions and answers about this story – from its origins to the recent revelation of an Israeli connection, and more.
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When did this all start?
The Middle Eastern branch of the allegations has its roots in events that took place in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain decided to enact a blockade on the neighboring country of Qatar, accusing it of supporting terror groups and aligning itself with Iran.
The decision caused a split within the Trump administration: the president seemed to encourage it, but some senior officials in his cabinet, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, warned that it would harm American interests in the Middle East. The Arab monarchies thus began an effort to sway the administration’s policy to fit their interests, causing internal rifts within the White House to intensify and become more public over time.
How did American Jews become involved?
Qatar, increasingly isolated and under pressure, began a campaign aimed at improving its standing with the Trump administration – by appealing to influential allies and supporters of the president within the U.S. Jewish community.
The tiny emirate hired Nick Muzin, a Washington lobbyist and former adviser to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars a month for his work.
Muzin brought the leaders of right-wing Jewish American groups to meetings with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani – with some especially flown into Doha on the emir’s dime. The goal was to persuade them that Qatar, which has a history of funding Hamas and other terror groups, is in fact a partner for Israel on important issues like developing the economy in Gaza and preventing another war on the Jewish state’s southwestern border.
Did the opposing side in the Gulf dispute use a similar tactic?
Just like Qatar, its rival-neighbors – especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have a long history of using lobbyists to advance their interests in Washington, and also of creating relationships with leaders of the American Jewish community. The Qatari campaign initiated last year was unusual because of its scope, and because many of the Jewish leaders who met with Qatari officials or visited Doha had previously been critical of its policies. But Qatar apparently wasn’t the only country that tried to use prominent supporters of President Trump to influence his policies.
A number of recent reports have portrayed an attempt by George Nader, a close adviser to the leaders of the UAE, to stir the Trump administration’s policy in a strong anti-Qatari direction. Nader was allegedly assisted in this effort by Elliott Broidy, a Jewish-American billionaire and one of the main fundraisers for Trump’s presidential campaign. Broidy is suing the leadership of Qatar for allegedly hacking into his emails and stealing private information and correspondence from it.
Some of this correspondence, which was leaked to the press following the alleged hacking, show Broidy and Nader coordinating their attempts to convince Trump and other senior officials to take a harsher line against Qatar. Besides being an influential supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign, Broidy is also a businessman with multimillion dollar deals in the UAE.
How did Trump’s personal attorney get dragged into this?
Up until two weeks ago, this dispute was mostly followed by people who closely chart the politics of the Gulf, or the U.S. Jewish community.
All of that changed when these allegations were linked to a much better-known Trump scandal: the allegations involving porn star Stormy Daniels, who received a $130,000 payment from Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, shortly before the 2016 election, allegedly in order not to go public about an affair she had with Trump a decade earlier.
Two weeks ago, Daniels’ brash lawyer, Michael Avenatti, tweeted out pictures of Cohen, taken at Trump Tower in December 2016, at exactly the same time as a former Qatari official was visiting. Avenatti alleged that the former Qatari official, Ahmed al-Rumaihi, had met with Cohen, and later bragged about bribing Trump administration officials.
Rumaihi used to work as a senior diplomat at the Qatari Embassy in Washington. He later worked at Qatar’s national investment authority and is considered close to the royal family. He also made eyebrow-raising visits in recent months to gala events of pro-Israeli organizations in America, at the time Qatar was running its campaign to influence the Jewish American community.
Is there evidence that Qatar or the UAE bribed someone in the Trump administration?
There is no confirmation that such wrongdoing took place.
In Qatar’s case, Rumaihi has been cited by former business partners - who are now suing him in a separate case - as bragging about money that was delivered to Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Adviser, and trying to bribe Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. Rumaihi has denied these allegations. His relationship with Cohen is unclear.
As for the UAE, Nader’s actions are reportedly being investigated by Robert Mueller.
Mueller is supposed to be investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Why is he looking into these allegations?
Mueller’s mandate is broad – and that has become one of the main points of criticism against his investigation by Trump supporters. Mueller has the authority to look into any suspected crimes he uncovers in the course of the investigation, and it would make sense that if he were going after Russia for intervening in the 2016 election, he would also examine possible signs of intervention by other countries.
But is any of this even related to the election?
The Qatari side of the story does not appear to be related to the 2016 election, at least for now. The UAE side, however, does seem to be connected. Last week, the New York Times reported that weeks before the election, UAE leadership adviser Nader met in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., and discussed a plan to help his father win the election.
Also present at that meeting was Joel Zamel, an Israeli social media expert, who runs a private intelligence firm. Zamel and Nader presented Trump Jr. with a plan to use social media manipulations to help Trump win the election. The report stated that it’s not clear if the plan was eventually adopted by the Trump campaign, but that shortly after Trump won the election, Nader allegedly made a large payment – possibly as high as $2 million – to Zamel’s bank account.
Could either Qatar or the UAE face significant consequences over any of this?
Both countries have reasons for concern. Broidy is suing Qatari officials, including Rumaihi and the younger brother of the country’s emir, for allegedly hacking his communications, stealing his private emails and distributing them to news organizations. Those are major crimes that could lead to serious consequences. Then there are the allegations that Rumaihi was trying to bribe Trump administration officials, which he strongly denies. It is not clear whether these allegations are being investigated by U.S. authorities.
As for the UAE, it depends on whatever Mueller’s team picks up from its examination of Nader and Broidy’s actions. There is not enough information currently available for us to determine what Mueller will end up with. One significant detail, however, is that Nader is reportedly cooperating with the investigation – something that is unlikely to please UAE officials.
Is Israel related to any of this?
The most interesting “Israeli” link to the story is Zamel. How did an Israeli citizen find himself sitting with an adviser to the leaders of the UAE and the son of the future American president, in a meeting focused on the 2016 presidential election? The Mueller team, which has already visited Tel Aviv and taken documents and computers from Zamel’s company, is looking for an answer to that very question.
Another unanswered question is what was Rumaihi doing at events of pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and the Zionist Organization of America. Is he a Zionist? Does he support, like the ZOA, Israeli settlements in the West Bank? Is he a fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? If not, then what brought him to those events?
Are there any other Israeli connections?
Yes, but all of them are on the periphery of the story, for now.
For example, Broidy is accusing an Israeli citizen of being involved in the Qatari hack against him, and is also accusing Qatar of using a British private intelligence firm that has offices in Israel. Broidy, meanwhile, is known as a strong supporter of the Israeli government, and many of the news stories about him feature pictures of him with Netanyahu. Nader also has his own history of ties to Israel: he was involved in failed attempts to mediate between Israel and Syria in the 1990’s, and has also met Netanyahu multiple times.
In general, Israel has not taken sides in the Gulf dispute. Jerusalem does work with Doha on some issues, especially connected to the Gaza Strip: a special Qatari emissary to the Palestinian enclave regularly meets with Israeli officials to discuss the situation there. At the same time, Israel sees eye-to-eye with the UAE when it comes to Iran and other regional issues, and Netanyahu recently met with the UAE’s influential ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, during his latest visit to the U.S. capital.
A statement on behalf of Rumaihi called the allegations against him by Broidy and others "completely meritless," adding that "the complaint promotes false and misleading descriptions of Mr. Al-Rumaihi. In June 2017, the time identified in the complaint, Mr. Al-Rumaihi was no longer employed by the State of Qatar or the QIA.”