How Trump’s Swamp Works Now
At 3:45 p.m. on October 6th, 2017, an unassuming man in his early sixties with a low, raspy voice and a thin, wide smile arrived at the White House. He had been here before, in the George W. Bush years, when he was one of the most sought-after fundraisers in the Republican Party. But a scandal had derailed his life, and afterward he had disappeared from politics. In early 2016, the opportunity arose to make his return. The man had helped Donald J. Trump’s long-shot campaign raise millions of dollars, and he could rightly say he played a role in the most improbable presidential victory in American history. Now, Elliott Broidy had come to deliver an urgent message. After a brief visit with Jared Kushner, he was summoned to meet the president in the Oval Office.
Broidy told Trump about a recent trip he’d taken to the United Arab Emirates, the small but wealthy Persian Gulf nation, on behalf of a defense-contracting company he owned. Broidy raved about the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MBZ, whom he had met with while in the Emirates. He said that MBZ and Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia, were creating an all-Muslim counterterrorism force made up of 5,000 Arab soldiers to fight against the Taliban and ISIS. With the help of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Broidy said, his company would assist the UAE and Saudi Arabia to train and assist those pan-Arab fighters.
Trump loved the idea. As far as he knew, Broidy had business interests in the Middle East and had briefed the president as a courtesy. What Trump didn’t know — and Broidy didn’t disclose, according to his detailed notes about the meeting obtained by Rolling Stone — was that Broidy was also waging a secretive, multimillion-dollar PR and influence campaign in Washington, D.C., to persuade the Trump administration to punish Qatar, an enemy of the UAE and Saudi Arabia — but an ally of the U.S.
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Broidy’s operation came with code names (Trump was “Chairman,” MBZ “Friend,” Qatar the “snake”), convoluted money trails and a shadowy liaison to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The liaison urged Broidy to make the most of his time with Trump (his “priceless asset”) and reiterated MBZ’s wishes in an email sent to Broidy a few days before the Oval Office meeting. “Again, take advantage of it to tell him that Friend would like to come asap to meet you [Trump] SOONEST out of official site,” the go-between wrote in a long email. The two crown princes “are counting on you to relate it blunt and straight as it is! . . . Tomorrow is a Pivotal and could turn out to be a Historical and milestone meeting!”
Broidy did as he was told, telling Trump that MBZ stood ready to travel to the U.S. for a meeting but would prefer a more private setting than the Oval Office. Broidy recommended New York or New Jersey. When Trump asked Broidy for his thoughts about Qatar, Broidy slammed the Qataris as financial supporters of terrorism and included them with North Korea and Iran in a new “axis of evil.”
Trump smiled and nodded. He had reason to champion Broidy’s cause. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia had long been loyal customers of his. The Saudis “buy all sorts of my stuff,” Trump said in 2015, and a massive Trump-branded golf course had recently opened in Dubai, in the UAE. The meeting was nearing its end, but the president had one last question for Broidy: What did he think of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson? Tillerson, the former Exxon-Mobil CEO, had shown support for the Qataris. In private, Broidy had seethed at Tillerson, calling him “a tower of Jello.” Broidy told Trump that Tillerson was “performing poorly” and should be fired at a “politically convenient time.”
Broidy then met with H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, to push for the private, informal meeting with Trump that MBZ wanted. The sun was starting to set when Broidy left the White House, confident he’d delivered his message. The crown princes were thrilled. Not long after, the liaison emailed him, “You have become a HERO here and at KSA [Kingdom of Saudi -Arabia], to say the least.”
DEPENDING ON where you stood, Trump’s election posed either an existential threat to the American experiment or the business opportunity of a lifetime. The thousands of lawyers, former congressional staffers and retired lawmakers who ply their trade as lobbyists had spent two years preparing for a Clinton administration. “If you went around town and told these lobbying firms you supported Trump, it was like a hate crime,” says Tom Davis, a former lobbyist and onetime Virginia congressman. “Trump threw out the book. He brought in a whole new crowd. The players changed, and the rules changed.”
Overnight, Trump’s small circle of friends and loyalists became extremely valuable. They could speak Trump’s language, explain him, influence him. Or at least that’s what they told the blue-chip corporations and foreign governments scrambling to find someone to help them navigate the new administration. “There’s, like, five people who bet on the long shot and won,” a seasoned GOP operative told me. “The day after the election, those five people all think they’re the biggest fucking swinging dicks in the universe. I’m the guy who can make all your dreams come true now.”
That’s where Elliott Broidy came in. Broidy set out to cash in on his connections to the new administration with breathtaking speed and audacity. In the aftermath of Trump’s win, Broidy, who landed a coveted spot as a vice-chair for Trump’s inauguration committee, used his ties to the president-elect to pitch his defense-contracting company, Circinus LLC, to foreign leaders. He invited two senior Angolan officials to Trump’s inauguration festivities while attaching a proposed contract with Broidy’s firm. He helped secure a brief audience for the Romanians with Trump at a dinner where Broidy was seated next to the president-elect. For a starting rate of $350,000 a month, Broidy offered to help a lawyer based in Moscow remove U.S. sanctions on two Russian companies. (The lawyer recalls Broidy’s proposal but not the suggested fees included in Broidy’s memo, and he says the plan did not go forward.) And in another instance, Broidy and his wife, a lawyer and former entertainment executive, hatched a plan to earn $75 million if they could get the Justice Department to drop an investigation into the multibillion-dollar fraud involving Malaysia’s prime minister and its state investment fund.
The real prize for Broidy, however, was two of the richest countries in the world: Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Contracts with their defense ministries for his security company could be worth hundreds of millions, if not billions. For years, Broidy had tried to win business with the Emirati and Saudi royal families. But that was before Trump came along. “President Trump campaigned on a promise to drain the swamp,” Paul Seamus Ryan, a vice president at Common Cause, tells Rolling Stone. “Instead, he brought a group of swamp creatures with him.”
This story is based on more than 40 interviews, hundreds of pages of legal records as well as private emails and other documents of Broidy’s, which reveal his efforts to shape the Trump administration’s Middle East policy and score foreign contracts for his company. Before publication of this story, a lawyer for Broidy sent a letter to Rolling Stone alleging that “paid agents” of Qatar stole the emails from Broidy as retribution for the “exercise of his First Amendment rights to highlight Qatar’s support for global terrorist organizations.” The lawyer contended that some of the documents were doctored or forged by the alleged hackers. Taken together with Rolling Stone’s reporting, the documents give a rare inside view of how the Trump-era swamp works — and Broidy’s place in it.
ONSTAGE, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, joined by members of the new First Family, swayed together to a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” It was January 20th, 2017, a night of parties celebrating the swearing in of the 45th president. At first glance, Trump’s inauguration resembled those that had come before it — the black-tie balls, the speeches and shout-outs to the supporters in attendance. But gaze out into the audience and you saw a motley cast of right-wing conspiracy theorists, overseas real-estate developers and a few Russian oligarchs. By day, they hung out in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel a few blocks from the White House, transforming it into a real-life Mos Eisley cantina, the scene of nonstop scheming and schmoozing by the strange new denizens of Trumpworld.
Broidy (center) with then Sen. Jeff Sessions and CEO Larry Mizel. After the election, men like Broidy who had backed Trump were very valuable in D.C. “There’s five people out there who bet on a long shot and won,” says one longtime GOP operative. “They could make all your dreams come true now.” Photo credit: Clint Spaulding/WWD/REX/Shutterstock
One person who was in attendance was a Lebanese-American businessman named George Nader. Short and stout, with thinning gray hair, Nader, like Broidy, had once been a player in Washington, and now, years later, the two men met for the first time, at the inauguration. The encounter would prove pivotal.
Nader had run a small but respected magazine in the 1990s called Middle East Insight, and people in the foreign-policy community knew him as a consummate wheeler-dealer, a mediator-for-hire who was always bringing different Middle Eastern delegations — the Israelis, the Syrians, Yasser Arafat — to Washington for conferences and negotiations.
Nader vanished from D.C. in the early 2000s; it later emerged that he’d been convicted in the Czech Republic for sexually abusing minors. He resurfaced in Iraq, working with Erik Prince, the founder of the controversial defense contractor Blackwater. Later, he served as a consultant to two Emirati investment firms and as an adviser to MBZ.
For Nader and MBZ, the Trump presidency was an opportunity for the UAE to assert itself as a greater player in the Middle East. It was also a chance for the Emiratis and Saudis to go on the attack against two of their fiercest rivals, Iran and Qatar. A small monarchy located on a peninsula roughly the size of Connecticut, Qatar has the highest per-capita income in the world, thanks to its vast natural-gas fields shared with Iran. Qatar, some say, is more of a company than a country. The ruling al-Thani family plays an outsize and often provocative — critics say destabilizing — role in the Middle East, funding pro-democracy conferences and using their TV network, Al-Jazeera, to shape public opinion in the region. Qatar’s critics accuse the al-Thanis of allowing terrorists to live in their country and use their financial system.
For years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had wanted nothing more than to cripple Qatar. In an allegedly leaked email from 2017, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S. wrote that conquering Qatar would “solve everyone’s problems. Literally,” and that Saudi King Abdullah had considered “doing something in Qatar” before he died in 2015. (Representatives for the Saudi and UAE embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.) Qatar enjoyed a strong relationship with the U.S., hosting one of the most important American air bases in the world, at al-Udeid. But now, in the chaos of the new administration, the Saudis and Emiratis sought to turn the U.S. against Qatar — and Broidy would convince them that he could make it happen. “The Gulf nations view their wealth as an extension of their power,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee. “When they’ve got a president of questionable ethics and one driven by money, it’s an attractive target.”
Nader and MBZ understood that there were ways to get to Trump that wouldn’t have worked with previous administrations. Trump liked to say that his primary consultant was himself; he trusted few people beyond his own family. Former campaign staffers, Mar-a-Lago members and business partners filled the vacuum where academics, diplomats and other experts would usually be found. The challenge was finding the right acolyte with enough juice to get your message in front of the easily distractible Trump.
For Nader, that man was Elliott Broidy. What they talked about the night of the inauguration isn’t clear. (A lawyer for Nader disputed the reporting about Nader’s pedophilia conviction and claimed that the emails between him and Broidy were “altered or fabricated” but did not give any examples.) But by the time the evening’s festivities were finished, the two men had the makings of a plan.
SOON AFTER the inauguration, a message appeared in Broidy’s inbox from his new friend. “Hi,” Nader wrote. “Here is my private email.” It was one of the first of hundreds of messages Broidy and Nader would exchange over the following year.
Broidy began his work for Nader by designing an extensive PR and influence offensive. The strategy, documents show, involved linking Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, the political and social group with millions of followers often accused of fomenting terrorism. In a memo to Nader dated March 15th, 2017, Broidy wrote that the Brotherhood had “infiltrated the Democratic Party” and “almost elected their champion, Keith Ellison, national chairman.” (Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and now Minnesota’s attorney general, has never championed the group.) In another memo, Broidy accused Qatar of funding and hosting members of Hamas and the Taliban. (The State Department’s 2017 terrorism report highlighted Qatar’s participation with the U.S. to combat terrorism financing while noting that terrorist financiers within Qatar are still able to exploit its informal financial system.)
Broidy sought to manufacture a groundswell of activity to demonstrate to Democrats and Republicans that Qatar was not an ally and that the Trump administration should take punitive action in the form of sanctions against Qatari individuals or a foreign-terrorist designation for the entire Muslim Brotherhood. If all went as planned, there would be no public evidence of Broidy and Nader’s efforts behind this covert operation. These activities are common in Washington: For decades, foreign governments have retained pricey law firms and political consulting firms to represent their interests. What made this one so striking was that Broidy and Nader operated outside the usual world of K Street firms and consulting shops.
Broidy had every reason to carry out his plan in secret. The last time he climbed to the top of American politics it ended in disgrace. Raised in Los Angeles in a middle-class Jewish family, he got a degree in accounting at the University of Southern California while running a laundromat on the side. Later he kept the books for the Bell family that had founded the Taco Bell chain and started his own investment firm, quickly becoming rich. Broidy had given modestly to both Democrats and Republicans running for office, but after 9/11 he grew increasingly hawkish and was an obsessive defender of Israel. He became a leader in a small, tightknit group of Jewish Republicans in Southern California who contributed substantial sums of money to Republican and conservative causes.
George Nader (above with Trump) and Broidy worked together to align the U.S. with Saudi and UAE interests.
“Mr. L.A.” was how one Republican fundraiser who attended events at Broidy’s house described him. He and his wife, Robin, threw high-dollar political fundraisers and charitable events at Rosewood, their Georgian-style mansion in the hills of Bel-Air that held a near-mythical place in Republican circles; George W. Bush supposedly once said of the place, “This is nicer than the White House.”
Then it all came crashing down. In December 2009, Andrew Cuomo, then the New York attorney general, announced that Broidy had pleaded guilty to bribing officials in the New York state comptroller’s office in exchange for a $250 million investment in a fund he had started called Markstone Capital. Broidy admitted to paying for lavish trips and gifts for state officials and their families and providing $300,000 for a movie called Chooch, produced by the brother of an employee in the comptroller’s office. “This is an old-fashioned payoff of state officials,” Cuomo said at the time. (The felony charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor in exchange for Broidy’s cooperation with the AG’s office.) Overnight, Mr. L.A. became a pariah. Candidates returned his donations. He resigned from Markstone. He and his wife moved out of their mansion and sold off a portion of their wine collection.
For the next few years, Broidy toiled in obscurity. He produced a low-budget movie and hired a PR firm to churn out feel-good releases (“Elliott Broidy Voices Support for Homeless Youth as Los Angeles Area Cities Continue Debates Over the Issue”) about his efforts to combat homelessness and support cancer research.
In the 2016 presidential race, Trump wasn’t his first (or second or third) choice: He’d initially supported Lindsey Graham, whom he’d known from the Bush years, switching to Marco Rubio, then to Ted Cruz. At first, Broidy didn’t think much of Trump: He allegedly told someone close to him Trump was an “idiot” who couldn’t even pronounce the names of countries correctly. But when the RNC and Trump campaign, whose lead fundraiser was Broidy’s friend Steve Mnuchin, came calling in 2016, desperate to find anyone who could raise money, Broidy threw himself into a campaign other Republicans couldn’t stomach. And it surely seemed like a lost cause to the people Broidy was soliciting — until the night of November 8th, 2016.
BY THE END of March 2017, Broidy had finalized a detailed and bulleted strategy with the goal of engineering a major crackdown on Qatar in Congress and the Trump administration. The plan, which he sent to Nader, called for enlisting (and bankrolling) think tanks specializing in foreign policy to educate the public on the dangers of Qatar and the Brotherhood. Broidy proposed using newspapers, magazines, YouTube and social media to spread the message. He suggested working with dark-money nonprofit groups that can run more overt political ads and have more leeway to push lawmakers for congressional resolutions, hearings and other official actions to gin up opposition against the two targets. He also designed a star-studded conference intended to move lawmakers, the administration and American public opinion in the direction of isolating and punishing Qatar.
Nader asked Broidy to send him an invoice for an initial $2.5 million. Whether that was a down payment or the full cost isn’t clear. If Broidy succeeded and proved his worth to Nader and the Emirati and Saudi princes, he hoped the payoff would come in the form of lucrative contracts for his company.
Broidy relied on a few key figures in Washington to help carry out his plan. One was Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Broidy had helped Royce’s wife get a job at the State Department. A onetime Saudi critic, Royce figured prominently into Broidy’s work. Broidy told Nader that he “caused” Royce to enter into the Congressional Record a fawning FoxNews.com op-ed by a Saudi general that hailed Trump for ushering in a new era in U.S.-Saudi relations.
Royce also headlined a May 2017 conference on Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood that, at least on paper, was organized by two think tanks, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and the Hudson Institute. But emails and other planning documents show that Broidy had a hand in the planning. With dozens of journalists in the audience at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, Royce announced an upcoming piece of legislation that would accuse Qatar of funding Hamas and open up the possibility of sanctions. “This is the first such bill to do so!” Broidy told Nader in an email. (Royce did not respond to requests for comment.)
Broidy’s conference came amid a crescendo of op-eds, news stories and other critical statements about Qatar in the spring and summer of 2017. As one former foreign lobbyist told me, small actions that create the perception of closer ties or tensions between a foreign nation and the U.S. are nearly as valuable as actual policy. That can take the form of a public event, a critical editorial or a letter from one member of Congress to his or her colleagues. The lobbyist tells the story of a 2015 hearing about U.S.-Hungary relations hosted by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., the then-chair of a subcommittee focusing on Eastern Europe. Few people attended the hearing, and it received almost zero coverage in the U.S., but it created a “deluge of coverage” in Hungary and was used by the country’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban, to show that he had champions in the U.S. “The smallest or inconsequential action by a member of Congress, such as a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, can be put out in the foreign press and used by governments to justify their policies and politics,” the lobbyist says.
One glaring difference between what the lobbyist did for Hungary and Broidy’s efforts was that the lobbyist disclosed his work. Under the law, Americans who try to influence American policy or public opinion on behalf of a foreign government must register under what’s known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law enacted in 1938 to combat the spread of Nazi propaganda. Until very recently, FARA was treated like “a stop sign in the desert,” as one foreign lobbyist told me. Broidy, however, never registered as a lobbyist or reported his activities under FARA; Chris Clark, a lawyer for Broidy, has noted that Nader is a U.S. citizen and said there is “no evidence” that either Nader or a foreign entity directed Broidy’s actions. “Elliott Broidy has never agreed to work for, been retained or compensated by, nor taken direction from any foreign government directly or indirectly for any interaction with the United States government, ever,” Clark tells Rolling Stone. “Any implication to the contrary is a lie.”
Joshua Rosenstein, a lawyer who specializes in FARA, tells Rolling Stone that FARA is an intentionally broad law that encompasses not just lobbying but any work that someone intends to or believes will influence the American public about the politics or policies of a foreign government. “The facts and exchange of emails and documents would give me significant pause if I were advising a client about proceeding under similar circumstances,” Rosenstein says, “and the Department of Justice would be justified in taking a close look at this.” (Clark, Broidy’s lawyer, says Rosenstein’s comment is “ill-informed” and based on “extremely limited knowledge.”)
Broidy’s behind-the-scenes efforts were having an impact. Trump had chosen to take his first foreign trip to Riyadh, where he participated in a strange glowing-orb ceremony with the Saudi king and vowed to work with the Saudis and the UAE to support a new counterterrorism center in the Middle East. He slammed the Iran nuclear treaty negotiated by Obama, mulled a foreign-terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood and was increasingly critical of Qatar, echoing Broidy’s own talking points. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump tweeted in June 2017. “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
A day earlier, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had cut diplomatic ties and imposed a blockade on Qatar, closing their borders to the Qataris, a serious blow for a country surrounded by water on three sides that exported natural gas and imported most everything else — and a major escalation in the conflict.
Meanwhile, Trump’s criticism of Qatar heated up and he appeared to be firmly on the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In late June, after just five months in office, he kicked off his 2020 re-election effort with a $35,000-a-head fundraiser at his D.C. hotel, reportedly hauling in $10 million. From the stage, Trump singled out a handful of people in the crowd, including Broidy, who was back on the RNC’s finance team. “Everybody knows Elliott,” Trump said. “Thanks, Elliott.” Later, he took a direct shot at Qatar. “We always say Qa-tar. It’s Qa-tar, they prefer. I prefer that they don’t fund terrorists.”
BROIDY’S WORK had initially caught the Qataris flat-footed. But they soon responded by launching a lobbying counteroffensive in Washington, hiring former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, several former Trump staffers and a slew of others at a rate of several hundred thousand dollars a month. One of those lobbyists was Nick Muzin, who had worked on Trump’s campaign and had extensive ties to the Orthodox Jewish community. Just as Broidy had tapped Christian and Jewish groups, including the American Israel Political Action Committee and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to criticize Qatar, Muzin went to work convincing Jewish and evangelical leaders that Qatar was a friend and ally. He and his business partner, a kosher-restaurant owner named Joey Allaham, arranged for people close to Trump, including law professor Alan Dershowitz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, to visit Qatar, and steered large sums of Qatari money to groups like the Zionist Organization of America. (After Qatar was revealed as the source, ZOA said it would return the money.) What made this so unusual was that this wasn’t a fight between liberals and conservatives; instead, two conservative Jews were battling it out on opposite sides of a Middle East proxy war.
According to sources, the fleet of lobbyists working for Qatar met weekly at its D.C. embassy, a five-story building that blends in with the surrounding consulting companies. One name often came up at those meetings: Elliott Broidy. The Qataris had allegedly drawn up an enemies list, and Broidy was on it. Qatar is “going after you,” Muzin later told an associate of Broidy’s.
For his part, Broidy’s plan was right on track. He used his success to sell Nader and the crown princes on the need to hire Circinus. Contained in Broidy’s leaked emails is a memo he wrote for Nader — and seemingly intended for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump’s trip to Riyadh, Broidy wrote, was a “smashing success” and a “major turning point” in U.S.-Saudi relations. He then listed the ways Circinus could assist the Saudi government. “My Goals, Circinus’ goals and the goals of KSA are completely aligned,” he wrote. According to materials Broidy sent to Nader, he had brought on General McChrystal as the chairman of Circinus’ “special-operations division.” Other documents listed former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as part of Broidy’s team.
As the Qataris ramped up their D.C. presence, Broidy redoubled his efforts to, as he wrote Nader, “crush the snake!” He helped organize another conference on Qatar that attracted bigger names than the first, including Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus as well as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. (Bannon, emails show, earned $100,000 for the appearance. He declined to comment.)
In an email titled “Strictly Confidential” sent to Nader on November 10th, 2017, Broidy outlined 11 different efforts underway to pressure the Trump administration into action. A handful of Republican and Democratic lawmakers would soon sign on to letters to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin (“a close friend of mine,” Broidy claimed) that were critical of Qatar. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., Broidy wrote, would introduce legislation allowing victims of attacks by Hamas to sue Qatar. (Broidy would join DeSantis’ fundraising team when he successfully ran for Florida governor.) Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., had agreed to “educate” his fellow senators about the wisdom of relocating the U.S. air command center out of al-Udeid. (Cotton also received donations from both Elliott and Robin Broidy.)
When Broidy needed help publicizing a classified State Department agreement signed with Qatar, he said he turned to “my friend” Rep. Robert Pittenger, a three-term GOP congressman from North Carolina. According to Broidy’s memo, he and his team “convinced” Pittenger to read the document in a secure classified-information facility at the State Department, get the document moved to Capitol Hill and arrange a “viewing party” so that other members of Congress could read it and speak out about it. (Pittenger received the maximum donation from Broidy.)
Pittenger tells Rolling Stone that Broidy’s description of their relationship is not true. Pittenger, who lost his seat in 2018, says he can’t recall meeting Broidy. He decided to view the classified Qatar agreement at the State Department on his own, he says, and Broidy seems to have taken credit for things he’d already done. “He’s a guy that blows a bunch of smoke,” Pittenger says. “There’s a lot of flaky people in Washington, and they love to promote themselves, and unfortunately he seems to fit in that category.”
Similarly, McChrystal tells Rolling Stone that Broidy exaggerated their relationship when he listed him as the chairman of Circinus’ special-operations division. McChrystal says he spent a few days in the UAE as part of a small team Broidy had assembled to compete for business in the region. He says Broidy asked him to accept a long-term role with Circinus and he declined. “I never thought I was the chairman of any part of the firm, although he was clear in his desire that I do so,” McChrystal writes in an email. “After that trip I did no more work with him.”
A spokesman for Panetta tells Rolling Stone in a statement that Panetta “was never involved in any of Mr. Broidy’s companies. Those claims are false.”
Nader told Broidy he wanted to get his picture taken with Trump. According to the leaked emails, when Nader had previously tried to get a photo with Trump at an event, he was turned away by the Secret Service over “something in his background.” On October 10th, 2017, Broidy and his wife drafted an email intended for John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, to vouch for Nader, whom Broidy referred to as “George Vader” so that Nader could get his photo with Trump. Some emails sent and received by Broidy also use the name Vader; another mentions Nader’s real name multiple times. Ultimately, Nader got in. A few months later, Broidy sent him his photo with Trump.
By late 2017, Broidy was deep in negotiations with Emirati officials to sign contracts with Circinus potentially worth $120 million, according to an email Broidy sent to his lawyer. A month later, Broidy emailed Nader to say that the first payment from the UAE had gone through: $36 million. Nader got the news as he was getting ready to travel to Florida to join Broidy at Mar-a-Lago for a celebration of the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. “Terrific! First among many to go!” Nader replied. At Dulles Airport, according to the Associated Press, FBI agents working for Robert Mueller intercepted Nader.
Trump’s first overseas visit as president was to Saudi Arabia. “The Gulf nations view their wealth as an extension of their power,” says Rep. Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee. “When they’ve got a president of questionable ethics and one driven by money, it’s an attractive target.” Photo credit: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
ON FEBRUARY 27th, 2018, two political operatives sat across from each other at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. One was Nick Muzin, the Qatari lobbyist. The other was Joel Mowbray, a conservative-journalist-turned-consultant who has worked for Broidy. Muzin had come to ask for Mowbray’s help to end the blockade against Qatar. When Mowbray declined, Muzin allegedly divulged a startling fact: The New York Times was investigating the connections among Broidy, Nader and the Middle East. Mowbray was surprised. He didn’t know about any story, and no one at the Times had contacted him or Broidy. From there, things completely unraveled for Elliott Broidy.
Two days later, The Wall Street Journal ran a story citing “a cache of emails from Mr. Broidy’s and his wife’s email accounts” that revealed the Broidys’ plan to press the Justice Department to end its investigation into Malaysia’s investment-fund scandal. Soon after, the Times broke the story of Broidy and Nader’s campaign for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, citing Broidy’s memo describing his October meeting with Trump, a copy of which was provided by “someone critical of the Emirati influence in Washington.”
Many suspected that Broidy had been hacked and someone was parceling out his emails to news organizations. When Muzin and Mowbray met again a few days later, Muzin denied any role in the hack-and-dump attack targeting Broidy. But he allegedly told Mowbray that there was “a lot more coming” from the Times and that Broidy was “in deep shit.” More stories soon appeared in the Times, AP, McClatchy, BBC and other outlets citing the hacked documents. The stories prompted an outcry among Democrats: Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Elizabeth Warren called for an investigation into whether Broidy had violated FARA or the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Broidy hired Boies Schiller Flexner, founded by David Boies, one of the country’s most high-profile litigators, who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore and more recently worked for Harvey Weinstein. As for Nader, he’s kept a low profile and is cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
On March 26th, Broidy sued Qatar, Muzin and Muzin’s firm for orchestrating the hack, later adding Allaham as a defendant. (Muzin did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for Allaham says, “As Joey has said 100 times, he had nothing to do with the hacking of Mr. Broidy’s emails.”)
The complaint described a “hostile intelligence operation” in which Qatari agents duped Broidy’s wife with a fake Google message into giving up her email password, which was then used to access her and Elliott Broidy’s accounts, while also breaking into Broidy’s company servers. In the winter of 2018, someone using the email account [email protected] disseminated to the media batches of Broidy’s emails, memos, contracts and more. The documents appeared to be organized by the various countries with which Broidy had pursued business deals — Malaysia, Romania, Angola, Republic of Congo, and of course the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Broidy and his lawyers have verified that his email was hacked, blaming Qatar. (A Qatari spokesman has said Broidy’s allegations are “completely fabricated and without merit.”)
Two weeks after Broidy filed his suit, federal agents raided the office of Michael Cohen, the president’s lawyer. The raid set off an embarrassing chain of events, leading Broidy to admit that he’d had an extramarital affair starting in 2013 with a Playboy Playmate named Shera Bechard. In 2017, Broidy had allegedly gotten Bechard pregnant and demanded she get an abortion; he agreed to pay her $1.6 million in exchange for her silence. Just as he had done for Trump’s affairs with porn actress Stormy Daniels and Playmate Karen McDougal, Cohen helped broker Broidy’s agreement with Bechard. Soon Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti was tweeting about a “prominent GOP donor” who had used Cohen to sign a “hush” deal. (Avenatti says he didn’t disclose any confidential information.) Broidy acknowledged to The Wall Street Journal that he was the donor in Avenatti’s tweet and said he would no longer pay Bechard.
Broidy was toxic once again. Members of Congress, including Royce and Pittenger, returned his donations. He resigned from the RNC’s finance team. Then, in July, Bechard sued Broidy, arguing that he had violated their agreement and owed her close to $1 million. Bechard’s complaint contained multiple redactions, but an error by Broidy’s lawyers disclosed Bechard’s allegations that Broidy kept a gun in his car and claimed to have connections “who could make people disappear.” (Broidy called Bechard’s allegations “false, malicious and disgusting” and accused Bechard of trying to blackmail him.)
Broidy’s efforts also caught the attention of federal law-enforcement agencies. In May, FBI agents twice interviewed a former associate of Broidy’s about his efforts to win contracts with Angola and about African nationals paying to attend Trump’s inauguration, the associate tells Rolling Stone. In August, The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department was investigating Broidy’s work involving the Malaysian investment-fund scandal.
By all indications, Broidy is undaunted and has no plans to go quietly, as he did after his 2009 guilty plea. After a judge dismissed his first lawsuit against Qatar and Muzin, Broidy filed a new one on January 24th in D.C. federal court against Muzin, Allaham and a former Qatari agent.
Broidy and his company have made tens of millions for their work, with the prospect of earning more in the years ahead. (Circinus has multiple postings for job openings in Abu Dhabi.) Whatever price he pays for his influence operation may simply be the cost of doing business in Donald Trump’s swamp. But for now, Broidy has taken Trump’s advice for what to do when dealing with scandals: Fight, fight, fight.
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