May 16, 2019
Earlier this year, President Trump suddenly retracted the nomination of a career diplomat set to be U.S. Ambassador to Qatar. Media reports at the time stated that the president intended to instead nominate a former congressman with a history of pro-Qatar statements for the ambassadorship, with no explanation of what prompted the abrupt change.
Documents recently filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), however, offer some new insight. They show that the very day this decision leaked to the press, lobbyists working for Qatar discussed the ambassadorial nomination with a close congressional ally of the president, Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
While Rep. McCarthy has no official authority over ambassadorial nominations, he does have the president’s ear, which suggests that foreign countries have sought to influence the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions by targeting allies of the president for influence.
President Trump first nominated Mary Catherine Phee, a career State Department official, to be U.S. Ambassador to Qatar on November 13, 2018. After the 115th Congress ended on January 3, 2019, Phee’s nomination automatically expired pending its resubmission to the new Congress.
On January 11, according to a FARA supplemental statement filed earlier this month, the Gallagher Group, a lobbying firm working for Qatar, contacted the office of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to discuss an “Ambo Nom [ambassadorial nomination] question.” The firm contacted Rep. McCarthy’s office again the next day to follow up.
On the evening of the 11th, CNN reported that the White House was expected to retract Phee’s nomination, instead nominating former Virginia congressman Scott Taylor in her place. CNN’s report stated that this decision had been “made by President Trump himself.”
Taylor was close to the Qatari government during his time in Congress. In late 2017, he visited Qatar and met with its Emir, Prime Minister, and Foreign Minister, praising the country in a Facebook post the following day. In 2018, Taylor spoke at Qatar’s National Day celebration in Washington, D.C. At the event, the country’s ambassador expressed gratitude to him for his efforts to promote U.S.-Qatar ties.
Five days after CNN’s report, when the White House resubmitted its ambassadorial nominations to the new Congress, Phee was “notably missing from the list.” However, Taylor has not yet been nominated for the ambassadorship. His unsuccessful 2018 midterm campaign is currently under investigation for election fraud, perhaps casting a shadow over his potential nomination.
Qatar’s lobbyists’ contacts with Rep. McCarthy’s office suggest that foreign agents have adjusted to the new landscape of influence in Washington, where an official’s power is often tied to his or her personal closeness to the president.
Apart from their communications with Rep. McCarthy’s office, the lobbyists’ only other congressional contact regarding the ambassadorial nomination was with the office of then-Sen. Bob Corker. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, Sen. Corker presided over the confirmation of ambassadors, making him a much more traditional lobbying contact for this issue.
Qatar spends millions of dollars each year on lobbying the U.S. government. This new disclosure shows that Qatar’s lobbyists have been involved in discussions surrounding the nomination of the U.S. Ambassador to their country—showing how foreign governments are able to use Washington’s influence industry to weigh in on crucial policy decisions affecting their national interests.
Update: Following publication of this blog post, James Gallagher, the principal at The Gallagher Group, contacted CREW and stated that he “did not lobby Rep. Kevin McCarthy or his staff about the vacant Ambassadorial post” as that “is not my role.” Mr. Gallagher also stated in reference to his January 11 contact “with a staff member in the Office of the Majority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy,” that “the contact in question was a text message at 6:58 pm on 11 January with a URL link to the CNN report referenced in [CREW’s] article. It was not to lobby the Minority Leader or his staff, it was simply forwarding, without comment, the link to the CNN report.”
Mr. Gallagher also objected to the last sentence of the blog post, stating that “[t]o view a text message to a Congressional staff member of a link to a CNN story in this vein is not correct.”