In the blink of a Michael Avenatti tweet, Ahmed al-Rumaihi has suddenly found himself internet-famous. It began on Sunday evening, when the attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels posted a screenshot of video footage from Trump Tower’s lobby, recorded on December 12, 2016.
Viral speculation followed, with online detectives identifying al-Rumaihi, the former head of a $100 billion wing of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, in the image and linking him to a Russia-Qatar deal to sell a portion of the oil company Rosneft, which had been referenced in the Steele dossier, a set of raw intelligence reports compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
From there, Slate took over, headlining a piece late Monday night: “Michael Cohen’s Meetings With Michael Flynn and a Qatari Diplomat Might Be the Key to Unlocking the Steele Dossier.”
Over the past two months, al-Rumaihi has shared details of his meetings that week in off-the-record interviews with The Intercept. Al-Rumaihi said he was reluctant to speak out publicly, so as not to create diplomatic problems for his country, which has been the subject of a blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since June. Qatar has been relying on the United States to mediate the dispute, and al-Rumaihi said he did not want to get in the way of that effort.
But al-Rumaihi, who was educated in the U.S. and served as the No. 2 in the Qatar embassy in Washington from 2008 until 2013, has changed his mind. He has complicated reasons for wanting to speak out now. After leaving Qatari government service in March 2017, he funded his own enterprise, called Sport Trinity. Last month, he was sued as part of a commercial dispute involving a former business partner of Steve Bannon and the rapper and actor Ice Cube. In a recent filing, the former Bannon partner, Jeff Kwatinetz, accuses al-Rumaihi of having offered to “bribe” Bannon, and further alleges in a complaint, filed in California, that al-Rumaihi told him, “Do you think [Michael] Flynn turned down our money?”
Al-Rumaihi said the claims in the lawsuit are fabricated, and that Kwatinetz would routinely raise the possibility of asking Bannon to assist Qatar, an offer al-Rumaihi said he knew was not serious given Bannon’s public criticism of the Gulf country. A spokesperson for Kwatinetz’s company, BIG3, denied the accusation, saying it was “laughable.”
In several conversations with The Intercept since March, al-Rumaihi talked about an encounter he had with President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in December 2016. Al-Rumaihi said Cohen asked him for an upfront fee of $1 million for his services in the midst of their conversation about a potential Qatari investment in U.S. infrastructure.
Cohen said it was “untrue” that he had sought payment from al-Rumaihi. “These falsehoods and gross inaccuracies are only being written in the hopes of maligning me for sensationalistic purposes. The truth will prevail and will ultimately be proven in court and not by pundits,” Cohen said in a text message.
Cohen has made headlines in recent weeks as records have emerged showing that he was paid millions of dollars in fees for “insights” into the Trump administration, by both obscure entities and blue chip companies like AT&T and Novartis. Al-Rumaihi’s story, however, is the first detailed account from the other side of the table.
In December 2016, government officials from around the world descended on New York City to try to gain insight into America’s unexpected 45th president. Al-Rumaihi, then the head of a $100 billion wing of the Qatar Investment Authority, was one of them. He landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 5 to join a delegation of officials from his home country for a meeting the following week with the national security adviser-designate, Michael Flynn.
Al-Rumaihi said he first met Cohen on December 7, 2016, when he was comped tickets by an American business associate to attend a $5,000-a-plate transition fundraising breakfast at the Manhattan restaurant Cipriani. Among the who’s who of Republican political operatives and successful businessmen at the event — the Qatari said the attendees included everyone from future Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to the owner of the New York Jets, Woody Johnson, who was later named ambassador to the United Kingdom — al-Rumaihi recalled meeting Cohen. Both were working the room, and after perfunctory introductions, al-Rumaihi said he asked Cohen if he could pick his brain on an infrastructure fund the Qatar Investment Authority had been contemplating, worth more than $50 billion. (The Qatari pool of capital would be used in public-private partnerships to refurbish American infrastructure, earning a return for investors and leveraging public dollars.) Cohen’s “eyes lit up,” according to al-Rumaihi. The two quickly exchanged information and agreed to meet soon.
In the space of a few days, the men were back together, this time in the late evening at a table at the Clement Restaurant, on the mezzanine level of the Peninsula Hotel, near a window overlooking Fifth Avenue, al-Rumaihi said. The restaurant was closing, but al-Rumaihi had convinced a staffer to let them keep using the room. They were joined by the same business associate who had invited al-Rumaihi to the Cipriani fundraiser. (Al-Rumaihi asked that he not be named, and the associate declined to comment to The Intercept.)
Al-Rumaihi and Cohen discussed whether, or when, to announce the potential infrastructure funding plan, with Cohen pushing to do it immediately, to show that Trump was already making America great again by bringing in foreign investment and creating American jobs. But al-Rumaihi said he wanted to maximize attention for the fund and help weave it into a narrative around the tight relations between the U.S. and Qatar.
Al-Rumaihi said that, as Cohen pushed, al-Rumaihi promised he’d take it up with the country’s leadership, which ultimately declined to announce it at the time. (A separate $10 billion announcement of a Qatari plan to fund infrastructure projects in the U.S. was made a few days later, though not an official one.)
Al-Rumaihi had reason to believe the Trump administration would be receptive to Qatari investment in infrastructure. Trump had even name-checked Qatar in a campaign speech riff on infrastructure, favorably comparing Doha’s airport to those in New York.
As the conversation turned to the infrastructure fund, Cohen suggested that Qatar could revitalize some Midwestern towns, saying, according to al-Rumaihi, “‘For example, we can find a steel factory that is about to shut down. You guys can invest. I’ll give you some names to appoint as partners. You guys put in the money, we will put in the know-how, and share the profits 50-50. We can perhaps get a federal government ‘off-take agreement’ for 10 to 15 years. It will revitalize the city, great PR, you guys will look like you’re saving the city, everybody wins.’”
Al-Rumaihi surmised that the biggest winners would be the silent “partners,” who would put in “know-how,” rather than money and walk away with half the profits.
When al-Rumaihi asked Cohen more generally about important projects that the investment fund should back, Cohen said there were plenty of options. But Cohen said he would need $1 million first, as part of his fee, al-Rumaihi told The Intercept.
Cohen moved the discussion along, saying “we can discuss those details later,” al-Rumaihi said. Al-Rumaihi remembered struggling to find words to reply, and finally saying, “OK.” Al-Rumaihi said he didn’t mean to signal agreement, but rather, as he recalled later, “that we would discuss those details later and explain why QIA, as a matter of strict policy, does not pay middleman fees in any transactions.”
Al-Rumaihi said he did not pay Cohen, and Cohen’s since-revealed account ledger includes no payment from al-Rumaihi, or any companies connected to him.
Cohen and al-Rumaihi met again briefly that week at the Plaza Hotel, where Cohen showed al-Rumaihi pictures on his mobile phone of his daughter, who he said was in London at the time.
Al-Rumaihi recalled a bizarre turn in the conversation that “went something like, ‘Oh you guys know London pretty well, given all the properties you own, like Harrods — I bet there’s a lot of nice purses there she’d like.’” (A few months later, Cohen was in the news for sharing an artistic photo of her in lingerie on Twitter.)
The next day, December 12, Cohen escorted the Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, from the Trump Tower lobby to the transition office where Flynn was holding meetings. Al-Rumaihi walked beside bin Abdulrahman into Trump Tower. On Sunday, Avenatti, the attorney for Daniels, who says she was paid to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she had with Trump, tweeted a screenshot of video footage taken that day that includes al-Rumaihi. The photo sparked viral speculation that al-Rumaihi’s visit was somehow connected to the sale of the Russian firm Rosneft, which closed on December 10. Al-Rumaihi said that that deal was not part of his portfolio and had long been in the works, and that he did not meet that day with Flynn, despite being at the Trump Tower.
While Flynn and the Qatari foreign minister talked privately, al-Rumaihi said he made small talk in the lobby with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was in town to audition for a role in the Trump administration. Perry was later named secretary of the Energy Department, which he had previously advocated to shut down.
Like many business disputes that wind up in court, the one involving al-Rumaihi, Kwatinetz, and Ice Cube has gotten ugly. Ice Cube and Kwatinetz run a three-on-three basketball league known as BIG3, to which al-Rumaihi and another partner allegedly agreed to provide $20.5 million in funding. They only delivered roughly a third of that amount, the suit alleges.
In April, when the emir of Qatar visited Washington for a meeting with Trump, Ice Cube took out a full-page ad in the New York Times highlighting the dispute. The lawsuit was filed on April 5.
A month later, on May 7, Kwatinetz filed a new affidavit, which Avenatti referenced in his viral tweet on Sunday. In it, Kwatinetz says he was “appalled” and “offended” when al-Rumaihi tried to use him as a conduit to “bribe” Bannon:
Mr. Al-Rumaihi requested I set up a meeting between him, the Qatari government, and Steve Bannon, and to tell Steve Bannon that Qatar would underwrite all of his political efforts in return for his support.
I immediately let Mr. Al-Rumaihi know that I was offended by this request, that I was trying to run a basketball league and need our money paid, and I stated that neither I nor Steve Bannon would ever take, or even entertain the concept, of a bribe of any kind. I was appalled.
Mr. Al-Rumaihi laughed and then stated to me that I shouldn’t be so naive, that so many Washington politicians take our money, and stated “do you think [Michael] Flynn turned down our money?”
Al-Rumaihi said that no such conversation ever took place. By the time this conversation would have occurred — Kwatinetz, in his filing, says it was this past January — Bannon had long been out of the White House. Earlier that month, Trump blasted Bannon in the wake of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire & Fury,” suggesting he’d “lost his mind.” In mid-January, Trump and the emir of Qatar spoke directly, with Trump thanking Qatar for its role in combating extremism.
Kai Henry, who was the chief creative officer at BIG3 at the time, said he doubted the Kwatinetz version of the conversation, because Kwatinetz and al-Rumaihi were already locked in a dispute over cash. “The main point of that whole get-together, of them even talking, was, can you fund the BIG3? Because we didn’t have enough money,” Henry said. “Jeff, who’s saying, ‘Hey, where the fuck is my money,’ I just don’t understand how that conversation goes to, ‘Hey, by the way, can you hook me up with Steve Bannon?’”
The dispute over funding for the basketball league has grown deeply personal. Roger Mason Jr., the former commissioner of BIG3, charged in a public filing that Kwatinetz often used racist language in reference to the players and said Henry resigned in protest over the way Kwatinetz disparaged al-Rumaihi and his partner.
According to Mason’s filing, Henry wrote in his resignation email:
I became very uncomfortable when [Kwatinetz] began using rhetoric that weaponizes the heritage of the Trinity investors in order to damage their character. As the Co-Founder of a basketball league which is comprised predominately [sic] of minorities, that language you are using and consistent demonizing is unacceptable and undermines the integrity and viability of the organization.
As a senior official at the National Basketball Players Association, Mason spoke out against the racism of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He told The Intercept that he was bound by a confidentiality agreement, but that he stood by the statement he had offered to the court. The spokesperson for BIG3 denied the allegations and said, “Every player loves and supports the league,” and that Henry had become close with al-Rumaihi and was not a credible source.
Henry stood by Mason’s account, and said that a comment Kwatinetz made about al-Rumaihi and his partner triggered Henry’s resignation.
“Doesn’t matter, bro,” Henry said Kwatinetz told him of the two Arab investors. “They’re all terrorists.”
Correction: May 18, 2018, 1:20 p.m.
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story referred to Rick Perry as Texas governor in December 2016. He was the former governor at the time.