When Donald Trump promised to drain the swamp of Washington insiders peddling special interests, his supporters might not have expected the talent pool to be refilled with quite so many businessmen with questionable lobbying ties. The latest is Republican lobbyist Richard Hohlt, who has been paid handsomely for his work with Saudi Arabia, and has been appointed to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.
Unlike Michael Flynn, Mr. Hohlt was already registered as a foreign agent at the time of his lobbying work, in October. He disclosed to the Department of Justice that his work entails providing the Saudis “with advice on legislative and public affairs strategies.” The Center for Public Integrity reports that as of April 30th, Hohlt’s work did not include direction of government contacts. In May and June, he worked on an arms sale. Like other Trump appointees, Hohlt insists that his own moral compass will steer him through any potential conflicts of interest. “I’d say I’m not going to work on it,” Hohlt said of a hypothetical request to lobby against the grain of the Trump administration.
Critics have pointed out how the appointment seems to go against Trump’s past promises on limiting the number of lobbyists in government. In October of last year, for example, Trump tweeted, “I will issue a lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a FOREIGN GOVERNMENT!” Yet Trump has ensured lobbyists working full-time for his administration get the ethics wavers they need to continue lobbying while also serving the White House. Of course, Hohlt is hardly a member of the senior executive branch, or even a full-time government employee. He has a part-time role recommending highly qualified people for slots in the White House and government agencies like the Department of Transportation and National Security Council.
The appointment comes, however, in the midst of Trump’s growing rapport with the Saudis (a marked contrast to his position in 2014). He didn’t include Saudi Arabia in his ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. He was also lavished with praise during his visit to Saudi Arabia, successfully brokered an arms deal, and later took credit for Saudi Arabia’s worsening relations with Qatar. Trump has been so eager to please his new friends in the Riyadh that he’s contradicted his own State Department and complicated the delicate diplomacy needed right now to maintain U.S. interests in the gulf. The Saudi Arabian King also recently broke with tradition to skip over successor Mohammed bin Nayef to name his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the throne. That’s significant because of Nayef’s reputation on counter terrorism and because of Prince Mohammed’s oblique efforts to make inroads with the Trump administration.
Putting Hohlt on the Commission could just be another case of the Trump’s administration’s myopic appointments without regard to just how bad some of them look. But given that similar conflicts of interest between other Trump affiliates and their Russian ties have garnered not one but multiple investigations by the highest levels of government, it might not be a bad idea to keep one eye on the administration’s ties to Riyadh.