By Eli Lee
April 20, 2020

Between 2017 and 2019, Republican Party campaigns and political committees received more than $190,000 from a person with close and apparently official connections to the Cambodian government. Over the same period, this donor, a man named Leewood Phu who first started making political contributions in late 2017, was granted entry to multiple private meetings and events, where he encountered high-ranking officials such as President Trump, Vice President Pence, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and National Republican Congressional Committee chair Tom Emmer.

This is yet another example of an emerging trend identified by CREW and other observers: Individuals without a prior history of political giving have started making large contributions to President Trump’s campaign and Republicans, and these donations have often coincided with private meetings and invitations to political events. Some of these donors have ties to foreign governments, businesses, and interest groups, raising the possibility that their contributions are geared towards seeking influence for those interests. This trend suggests that influence-seekers see an opportunity during the Trump administration to gain access never seen before, and they’re taking advantage of it. 

Phu, a resident of Minnesota, does not appear to have made any contributions to American federal political campaigns or committees prior to 2017. In September of that year, however, he made two contributions in support of a local congressman, Rep. Tom Emmer. The following year, leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, Phu made nearly $140,000 in additional donations to Republican campaigns and committees, giving $33,900 to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), $30,000 to the joint fundraising committee Protect The House, and $25,000 to a joint fundraising committee for the NRCC and the Republican Party of Minnesota. In 2019, Phu gave another $50,000 to the NRCC, bringing his total contributions since 2017 up to more than $190,000.

Meanwhile, Phu appears to have longstanding ties to the government of Cambodia. According to his LinkedIn page, from 2000 to 2010, Phu was the Secretary General of the Cambodian government agency tasked with managing the country’s IT industry. Phu’s LinkedIn page also states that since 2014, he has been an official advisor to the Cambodian government—a position that requires a personal appointment from a senior government official, according to Cambodian press reports. When making several of his contributions in 2018, Phu listed his employer as “RGC,” likely an abbreviation for “Royal Government of Cambodia.”

Numerous petitions sent to Cambodia’s government indicate that for years, including as recently as 2018, Phu was a point of contact for the office of the country’s prime minister, Hun Sen. That same year, Phu, who lists “diplomacy” as a skill on LinkedIn, posted a photograph of himself at a private “working lunch” with the South Korean ambassador to Cambodia. In response to a comment stating that the lunch “[looked] like Diplomatic discussions,” Phu wrote, “Great discussion. Plenty of grants assistance awaiting.” In February of this year, Phu shared a photograph on Facebook of himself with a Cambodian government official inside the country’s Ministry of the Interior. These facts suggest that Phu has a close and ongoing official relationship with the Cambodian government—one that has, at least in the past, seemingly involved duties of a diplomatic nature.

At the same time, Phu has cultivated a relationship with Republican Party officials. In April 2018, a week after Phu made his first contribution to the Republican Party of Minnesota, he attended the state party’s annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Minneapolis, where he took a photograph with Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, later posting it on Instagram. In September 2018, Phu took a photograph with Vice President Mike Pence at an event, later posting it on Facebook; that same month, at a fundraiser at President Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel, Phu met and took a photograph with the president himself. In October 2018, when President Trump attended a “roundtable with supporters” in Minnesota, Phu participated: A Facebook post he made soon after shows that he was seated directly across from the President at the event.

Leewood Phu with President Trump at the president’s Washington, D.C. hotel in September 2018.

In January 2019, Rep. Emmer, an early beneficiary of Phu’s political giving, became the new chairman of the NRCC. That April, Phu attended the NRCC’s annual Spring Dinner, where he posed for a picture with Rep. Emmer that he later posted on Facebook. In June, Phu posted a photo of himself with Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida in his Congressional office. And in August, Phu met privately with Rep. Emmer in Washington over coffee, as indicated by a Facebook post made at the time. Phu has also posted a photograph taken with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Leewood Phu with NRCC chair Rep. Tom Emmer at the NRCC’s 2019 Spring Dinner.

Other posts on his Facebook page indicate that Phu has also met with members of President Trump’s inner circle outside of government, such as his son Donald Trump, Jr., and his daughter-in-law Lara Trump.

Some captions on Phu’s social media posts suggest the possibility that he sought to promote Cambodia and its interests in the meetings. When Phu met Lara Trump in 2018, he posted a photograph on Facebook showing her holding a souvenir from Cambodia and wrote that he was “help[ing] advertise Cambodia” to the person “in charge of the biggest news coverage for Mr. Trump.” In his Facebook post discussing his attendance at the NRCC Spring Dinner in 2019, Phu urged Cambodian-Americans to run for office, stating that such involvement in U.S. politics could help Cambodia. In 2019, after meeting with Rep. Yoho, Phu referred to the congressman on Facebook as “one of the influential persons in the foreign affairs committee.” 

While Phu has longstanding ties to the Cambodian government, there is no evidence he is a foreign national prohibited from making political contributions. In fact, to make some of his political contributions, Phu needed to certify or represent that he is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

There also is nothing inherently improper about Phu’s meetings with government officials. However, the substance of his discussions with those officials is unknown, and if Phu advocated for Cambodian interests with them, this activity would likely qualify for disclosure under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Phu has not registered under FARA.

Regardless, Phu’s entry into private Republican Party events and his private audiences with influential politicians show how readily party officials grant access to donors who make large contributions. Phu is only one of many individuals whose newfound generosity has gained them access to politicians and members of the Trump administration. He also is only one of several such donors who have been revealed to have deep ties to a foreign government. The ease with which anyone willing to write a large enough check can gain access to politicians and public officials is a reality of which every American should be aware and concerned.