May 14, 2019
Emails obtained by CREW show that a close friend of President Donald Trump had access to high-level officials in Trump’s Commerce Department and used this access to share materials that were part of a plan to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia. Some of those advocating for this plan stood to make money from it. The correspondence shows Paul Manafort’s partner Rick Gates was enlisted to help arrange a personal meeting with Secretary Wilbur Ross shortly after these materials were shared, and the meeting was a priority for Ross.
Related communications with the National Security Council on these issues resulted in whistleblower complaints, but these communications with Commerce haven’t been reported.
In February, the House Oversight committee released a report detailing whistleblowers’ concerns about efforts within the White House to provide nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Among the serious concerns with this incident were that several people involved in advocating for the plan–from both inside and outside the government–apparently stood to make money from it.
One of those people was Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of President Trump who chaired his inaugural committee. Around the time Barrack and others contacted the White House about the Middle East, Barrack was “seeking investment ideas based on the administration’s Middle East policy,” including considering buying part of a bankrupt company that makes nuclear reactors.
Another was Michael Flynn, who served as an advisor to a subsidiary of a private nuclear energy company called IP3 International. Early in Trump’s presidency IP3 drafted and sent to NSC officials plans to share sensitive nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia. One of the documents that IP3 officials sent to the NSC was a white paper authored by Tom Barrack entitled “The Trump Middle East Marshall Plan.”
Records obtained by CREW through a Freedom of Information Act request show that this same document was sent to Commerce officials in March 2017. Shortly after it was sent, a meeting was arranged between Barrack and Secretary Ross by former Trump deputy campaign manager advisor and now-convicted felon Rick Gates, working on behalf of Barrack.
On March 13, 2017 Gates wrote to Eric Branstad, a liason to the White House in the Department of Commerce, “Here is the white paper that I believe Tom sent to Wilbur. We can discuss during our meeting today.” Attached was the five page “Marshall Plan” document. The records show that less than a week later, Gates followed up with Branstad to arrange a meeting between Barrack and Secretary Ross.
“I discussed with Secretary Ross this morning and this is a priority,” Branstad responded. Though Gates then postponed due to Barrack’s schedule, they discussed April dates for the meeting. The documents don’t confirm whether the meeting took place.
Gates, Branstad, and Barrack all worked together on President Trump’s inauguration.
Barrack’s white paper called for the President to “appoint a special representative for the Trump Middle East Marshall Plan.” According to the House Oversight committee’s whistleblower report, the plan was for this person to be Barrack himself.
In January 2017, IP3 sent documents to Flynn that included “a draft Cabinet Memo stating that the President had appointed Mr. Barrack as a special representative to implement” IP3’s nuclear plan for the Middle East, calling for the development of “dozens of nuclear power plants.” In a January 28, 2017 email, an IP3 official wrote to Michael Flynn, “Tom Barrack has been thoroughly briefed on this strategy and wants to run it…. He’s perfect for the job.”
Though Barrack’s white paper does not mention IP3, it calls for “empower[ing]” the “industrial might of the USA’s private sector” including in the area of “[p]ower generation and distribution.”
These messages show that Barrack’s efforts to influence Middle East policy early in the Trump administration were greater in scope than previously known. He targeted the Commerce Department, in addition to the NSC, and he was offered access to the secretary.
The messages provided to CREW depict chummy relations between veterans of Trump’s campaign and inauguration, who went on to take official positions or try to influence the government from the outside on behalf of special interest clients.
In a second instance, Gates reached back out to Branstad on behalf of former Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy’s defense firm Circinus as the company sought to secure an endorsement from the Commerce Department to do business with the Romanian government.
“I know Tom briefed you on the US company Circinus, LLC yesterday,” Gates wrote to Branstad in the August 2017 email. “I believe the PM of Romania is scheduled to come over in mid-September and you may already have him scheduled to meet with Wilbur. Please let us know what you need from our side to get this done.” Branstad responded enthusiastically, “On it!”
“Tom” in this case refers to Thomas Hodgkins, who is included on the Circinus messages. Thomas Hodgkins is the name of an inauguration official who is also the president of a lobbying firm, Hodgkins and Associates, but CREW is not able to confirm that this is the same Thomas Hodgkins. Hodgkins and Associates has never registered to lobby for Circinus.
The next month, Hodgkins followed up on Gates’s message “to inquire if you and Sec. Ross would be able to drop by an event with the Romanian Delegation and about 30 guests” taking place five days later. The day after the scheduled event, Hodgkins wrote back to Branstad, “Great seeing you,” suggesting Branstad attended the Romanian event as requested.
Circinus has received the Commerce Department’s endorsement to provide defense work to the Romanian government, with which it entered into a “cooperation agreement.”
According to the New York Times, Commerce Department endorsements are “commonly sought by American companies trying to do business with foreign governments,” and it was “unclear what role, if any, Mr. Gates’s efforts played” in providing the endorsement to Circinus. The Times also reported that while the Romanian government said an active cooperation agreement was in place, a “Broidy associate said no contracts have been awarded or are pending.”
Since these messages were exchanged, investigations into President Trump’s campaign, inauguration, and administration have ensnared Gates, Barrack, and Broidy. The emails provided to CREW provide a snapshot of an early administration providing access to the well-connected, before those very individuals were haunted by past actions.
This blog post was updated on June 14, 2019 to provide further information about Commerce Department endorsements, including Mr. Gates’s potential role in obtaining one for Circinus, and the relationship between Circinus and the Romanian government.