Longtime New York restaurateur Joey Allaham visited Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue late last year with an offer for lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Come visit Doha, the capital of Qatar, by invitation of the emir.
Mr. Dershowitz says he hadn’t met Mr. Allaham before and initially demurred before agreeing to go. The professor also didn’t know he was on a list of 250 people Mr. Allaham says he and his lobbying-business partner, Nick Muzin, identified as influential in President Trump’s orbit.
The list was part of a new type of lobbying campaign Qatar adopted after Mr. Trump sided with its Persian Gulf neighbors who had imposed a blockade on the tiny nation. Qatar wanted to restore good relations with the U.S., Mr. Allaham says. Win over Mr. Trump’s influencers, the thinking went, and the president would follow.
“We want to create a campaign,” Mr. Allaham says he told Qatari officials in his business pitch soon after the blockade, “where we are getting into his head as much as possible.”
Qatar’s lobbying operation over the next year was an unconventional influence plan to target an unconventional president—and shows how much Mr. Trump has changed the rules of the game in the influence industry.
Because Mr. Trump often shuns traditional policy-making processes, relying on advice of friends and associates, interest groups have spent the past 19 months reorienting their lobbying. New approaches include advertising during the president’s favorite television shows and forming ties with people who speak to him.
Qatar spent $16.3 million on lobbying in 2017 in the U.S., the year of the blockade, up from $4.2 million the year before, according to its federal filings on payments to registered foreign agents. As of June 2018, the country was directly employing 23 lobbying firms, up from seven in 2016, its filings show.
It spent some of that on lobbyists with ties to Mr. Trump and paid others to ply the halls of Congress—a typical approach aimed at pressing lawmakers and top administration officials.
Atypically, it also turned to friends, associates and well-placed admirers of the president. It deployed the list of 250 “Trump influencers” such as Mr. Dershowitz who are known to have the president’s ear formally or informally, Mr. Allaham says. He and Mr. Muzin say they compiled the list and approached their targets, sending roughly two dozen to Doha, covering their expenses and paying some directly. Among others they sent were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and conservative radio host John Batchelor.
They also arranged meetings in the U.S. between Qatari officials and some Trump associates, they say, including Steve Witkoff, a fellow New York developer with no history in politics. Mr. Witkoff didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Steve Bannon, former senior counselor to Mr. Trump, says while Qatar’s opponents, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, spent U.S. lobbying money “the usual way, by paying all the same old names, Qatar tried something different.” The Saudi and U.A.E. embassies in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Getting all of these influencers, the Jewish leaders and people close to the president, shows a high level of sophistication,” says Mr. Bannon, long a critic of Qatar. “It caught the U.A.E. and Saudi asleep at the wheel.”
Jassim al-Thani, a Qatari Embassy spokesman in Washington, says the broader effort was necessary because of the “lobbying army” of Middle East rivals. “Without question, it took time and resources to replace the blockading states’ lies with the truth, including inviting delegations to visit Qatar and investigate the blockade for themselves,” he says. He declines to discuss the campaign’s specifics. He doesn’t dispute Mr. Allaham’s and Mr. Muzin’s accounts.
Mr. Allaham’s and Mr. Muzin’s lobbying firms earned at least $3 million from their work for Qatar, their federal filings show. They say the Qataris implored their guests to spread the word about what they saw as Qatar’s good works, including its aid to rebuild Gaza. They say they didn’t demand the visitors communicate their views in any specific fashion, declining to give details of their discussions with any individual on the list.
There are signs Qatar’s program may have paid off. Mr. Trump reversed his stance and in April welcomed its emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, into the White House, patting him on the knee and calling Qatar “a valued partner and longtime friend.” A congressional bill to label Qatar a terrorist-supporting nation due to its alleged ties to Hamas stalled.
“You can see from the meeting with the emir, the body language and the words, that the outreach to Trump has been successful,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East studies fellow at Rice University. Qatar’s unconventional outreach to “people in the bubble around the president,” he says, was a “clever move that has obviously produced results.”
Responding to questions about whether the Qatari effort influenced Mr. Trump, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis says: “The improvement of the U.S. government relationship with the Qataris has occurred due to many successful official bilateral engagements over the past year.”
Some of the people who traveled to Doha—including Mr. Dershowitz—say they feel duped because they hadn’t known the trips were part of a state-lobbying effort. Messrs. Allaham and Muzin say they didn’t mislead anyone.
Mr. Allaham conducted most of his work without registering as a foreign agent until June. He says he didn’t initially file that paperwork because he intended to connect Qatari investors with American projects, which typically wouldn’t have required registration.
The Trump challenge
Qatar’s challenge was evident early in the Trump administration. The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia had better relationships with the new White House than the Qataris. In May 2017, Mr. Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia for a Mideast summit, where Qatari officials attended sessions on ending terror financing and other issues. Mr. Bannon and another former senior White House official describe the Qataris’ attitude during the meetings with Gulf counterparts as “uncooperative.”
The Embassy’s Mr. al-Thani says Qatari officials eagerly participated in everything they could.
Days later, businessman and Republican donor Elliott Broidy, who has business interests in the U.A.E., paid for a Washington conference critical of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, says Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which put on the conference. Around then, Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill labeling Qatar a terrorism sponsor.
In June, countries including the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain announced their blockade. Mr. Trump said at a news conference: “Qatar has unfortunately been a funder of terrorism.”
Qatar had long been confident about its U.S. relationship, largely because thousands of U.S. troops are stationed there, several longtime Qatar advisers say. After Mr. Trump’s criticism, it contracted with the legal and lobbying firm of Republican former Attorney General John Ashcroft for $2.5 million to audit its counterterrorism procedures, the firm’s federal filings show. Mr. Ashcroft, who endorsed Mr. Trump before his election, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Qatar in July 2017 hired Avenue Strategies, a lobbying firm led by onetime Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett, eventually approving a contract valued at $6 million a year, the firm’s filings show. Mr. Bennett says his main task was to develop the country’s long-term strategy in the U.S.
Messrs. Muzin and Huckabee visited Hebron, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, in July, a picture posted to Mr. Muzin’s Twitter account shows. Months earlier, Messrs. Muzin and Allaham arranged for the former governor to visit Doha as part of their influence campaign for Qatar.
About the same time, Messrs. Allaham and Muzin, who knew each other through Republican Jewish circles, say they were creating a quick-strike plan to pitch to the Qataris. Mr. Allaham, 43, was a former high-end kosher restaurateur with a side business arranging luxury Passover excursions. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz attended his 2015 Passover event in Dana Point, Calif.
Mr. Muzin, 43, was then Mr. Cruz’s deputy chief of staff. A physician and lawyer, Mr. Muzin advised the Republican’s presidential campaign until it ended, then helped Mr. Trump’s. He arranged for Mr. Allaham to attend the inauguration, he and Mr. Allaham say.
The Qataris agreed to their influencer-list proposal, and the pair quickly set sights on Mr. Dershowitz—an unconventional target, as he isn’t a lawmaker or administration official. Mr. Dershowitz had won Mr. Trump’s praise as “a good lawyer” and “legal scholar,” which Messrs. Allaham and Muzin say attracted their attention.
Mr. Dershowitz says he had reservations about visiting Qatar, partly because it has previously allowed members of Islamist groups like Hamas to live in the country. Mr. Allaham assured him Qatar was serious about changing its ways.
After visiting in January, Mr. Dershowitz praised the country in a newspaper column as “quickly becoming the Israel of the Gulf states, surrounded by enemies, subject to boycotts and unrealistic demands, and struggling for its survival.”
Mr. Dershowitz declines to discuss payments for his Qatar experience, saying: “I don’t make long trips to foreign countries paying my own way.” He returned to Qatar in March to give a lecture.
He says he went both times as an academic. Told the Qatari lobbyists viewed him as a Trump influencer, he says: “If I had known their purpose with me was maybe to impact the president, I would not have gone.” He says he mentioned nothing to Mr. Trump about Qatar.
Mr. Huckabee visited Qatar in early January after Mr. Muzin says he approached the former governor. He is a vocal supporter of Israel, and his daughter is the White House press secretary. After his trip, he tweeted that he found Doha “surprisingly beautiful, modern and hospitable.”
Mr. Allaham paid him a $50,000 honorarium for the visit, a foreign-lobbying report shows. Mr. Allaham says Mr. Huckabee is a consultant who deserved compensation. Mr. Huckabee didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Allaham approached Mr. Batchelor, the radio host, because the lobbyists had heard Mr. Trump sometimes listened to his show, and administration members have been his guests. Mr. Batchelor visited Qatar in January.
“What I was convinced was I was in a city that wants to make money, that wants transparency, that wants a strong relationship with the pres—with the United States,” he said in a show shortly after. “I think they’re an ally if we want them.”
Mr. Batchelor didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Another person Messrs. Muzin and Allaham say they identified as influential was Chris Ruddy, a member of Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and chief executive of Newsmax Media Inc., which runs a conservative cable channel.
Mr. Allaham says he introduced Mr. Ruddy to the Qataris, who began negotiating a multimillion-dollar stake in Newsmax. The talks broke down after Politico published an article revealing their discussions, Mr. Allaham says. Mr. Ruddy says “we never discuss our investors or people who might be interested in investing.”
Mr. Allaham also met with Mr. Bannon, who had received $100,000 last fall to speak at another Broidy-sponsored conference about the country’s purported links to terrorism. Mr. Allaham conveyed to Mr. Bannon that Qatar was interested in funding his projects, both say. Mr. Bannon says he declined the offer and communicated with Mr. Allaham only to dissuade him from working on Qatar’s behalf. Mr. Allaham doesn’t dispute that account.
Qatar’s campaign sparked a lawsuit by Mr. Broidy claiming Qatar and some of its agents, including Mr. Muzin, conspired to steal his emails, which included details of his work for the U.A.E., to discredit him as part of the lobbying campaign. A federal judge dismissed Qatar and Mr. Muzin as defendants, and the two rejected the allegations.
Mr. Broidy’s lawsuit, filed in March in federal district court in Los Angeles, revealed Mr. Allaham’s work on Qatar’s behalf. Mr. Allaham’s subsequent Justice Department reports show he used money from Qatar to donate $100,000 to the Zionist Organization of America, a pro-Israel group that has been dubious of Qatar’s claims it doesn’t fund terrorist groups.
The organization’s director, Morton Klein, who is close to Mr. Trump’s top advisers on Israel, also visited Doha, say Messrs. Allaham and Muzin. Mr. Klein returned the donation after learning it came from Qatar, he and Mr. Allaham say. “I was in absolute shock, and I was hurt and disappointed,” Mr. Klein says, adding he “never in any way lobbied for Qatar.”
Messrs. Allaham and Muzin say they stopped working for Qatar in June; federal filings show they remain registered agents of Qatar.
In July, they formed a lobbying and investment-advisory firm, Stonington Global. The rollout of their new firm was overshadowed by controversy around a partner they announced at the same time, former White House national security adviser Mike Flynn. Mr. Flynn is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty last year to lying to federal investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during Mr. Trump’s transition to power.
After the firm’s announcement was publicized, Mr. Flynn’s attorneys said he wasn’t aware it was launching so soon and said he wouldn’t be joining after all. Messrs. Allaham and Muzin say Mr. Flynn isn’t working with their firm, though they hope to have him rejoin them after his sentencing. Mr. Flynn didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Messrs. Allaham and Muzin decline to say if they have clients. The release announcing their new firm says they “will build on their success representing the State of Qatar, which in the course of eight months saw the Gulf Emirate go from isolation, blockade, and Presidential criticism, to the strengthening of the US-Qatari security and economic relationship.”
Write to Julie Bykowicz at firstname.lastname@example.org