Last year, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, one of the Republican Party’s biggest fundraisers, had a request for 30 Republican congressional staffers. Coleman had helped many of their bosses’ campaigns in his role atop an organization that raised and spent over $165 million in the 2020 election cycle.
“At this time,” wrote Coleman, “the Kingdom would appreciate if your Member of Congress would publicly welcome this step and call out the Houthis for their continuous obstruction of the political process.” He was promoting a Saudi ceasefire initiative in Yemen that the Houthi rebels ultimately rejected. The rebels demanded that any such agreement would require the Saudis to fully lift the blockade of Yemen, which had contributed to more than 370,000 deaths.
His ask — “on behalf of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia” — wasn’t an isolated request. Coleman wrote over 1,000 emails to House and Senate staffers in 2021 and 2022 as part of his paid work for Saudi Arabia. Coleman and several of his law firm colleagues are registered as foreign agents of the Kingdom. The emails, as well as the details of the $175,000 per month contract between Saudi Arabia and Hogan Lovells, the law firm, are all contained in filings submitted to the Justice Department. The contract is part of the Saudi government’s robust lobbying operation that saw the kingdom spend $21 million last year to gain influence in Washington, according to public filings.
Coleman enjoys a unique position of influence over congressional Republicans. He helped found the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, where he serves as chair of the board, according to a current biography on his law firm profile. Coleman also serves as chair of the American Action Network, a tax-exempt “social welfare group” — an IRS designation that allows political advocacy and requires no disclosure of funding. In other words, it’s a dark-money group.
In addition to sharing office space and staff, American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund have deep financial ties. AAN, an IRS-designated 501(c)(4) group, has described the CLF as its “sister super PAC” in promotional material. The arrangement — a dark-money-to-PAC pipeline — is a common one, allowing the tax-exempt group to funnel dark money into the explicitly political coffers of the PAC.
AAN contributed approximately $30 million of CLF’s $165 million war chest in the 2020 cycle. That pattern has repeated itself in election cycle after election cycle. Since 2011, over $94 million in AAN dark money — overseen by a registered agent for Saudi Arabia — has flowed into the coffers of CLF and, from there, into ads and other support for Republican congressional candidates.
Calvin Moore, a spokesperson for AAN who also identified himself after publication of this story as a spokesperson for CLF, said all of AAN’s fundraising was domestic. “Unequivocally, we have never solicited or accepted any foreign funds,” he said. “I will also add that Senator Coleman is a valued member of our board but is not involved in fundraising for the organization.” (Coleman and Hogan Lovells did not respond to requests for comment.)
“The fact you have a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia involved in groups influencing U.S. elections is just a step removed from those more direct roles that are explicitly barred.”
An expert on campaign finance transparency was troubled by the movement of funds from a dark-money group into a super PAC. “That exchange of dark money has been a long-standing thing,” said Anna Massoglia, editorial and investigations manager at OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics.
Massoglia noted that foreigners aren’t allowed to interfere in elections or donate directly to campaigns, and said, “The fact you have a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia involved in groups influencing U.S. elections is just a step removed from those more direct roles that are explicitly barred.”
As Coleman worked lucrative lobbying contracts for Riyadh, AAN produced favorable messaging about Saudi Arabia. The group, and its related American Action Forum, where Coleman is listed as “of counsel,” have singled out Saudi Arabia for praise. In a 2015 blogpost on AAN’s website, under the banner of “Note from Norm,” Coleman promoted Saudi Arabia, alongside China and Indonesia, as models of “moderate Islam” and enemies of the Islamic State. And a 2016 post on the AAF website praised economic reforms proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “Reformed Saudi Economy Could be Good for Oil Markets,” declared the headline.
Coleman’s dual roles as chair of an organization that funds election ads as well as lobbyist puts him in an influential position. Many congressional Republicans, especially those in close races, were assisted in their elections by CLF and subsequently were lobbied directly by Coleman on behalf of Saudi Arabia. While there’s no evidence that Saudi money — or any other foreign money — has been routed through AAN and CLF into ads supporting Republican candidates, GOP members of both the House and Senate form consistent voting blocs in support of Saudi interests.
Last September, the House voted on an amendment introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., calling for the U.S. to end virtually all aid to Saudi’s war in Yemen. Only 11 House Republicans voted in favor of the amendment and 196 opposed it.
A similar amendment that same month, introduced by Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., included slightly softer language, calling for a suspension of support for Saudi air force units involved in airstrikes on Yemeni civilians but with several broad exceptions. On the Republican side, only 7 members of the House voted for the amendment and 203 opposed it.
And a Senate vote in December on a resolution introduced by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., declaring a toothless “congressional disapproval” for weapons sales to Saudi Arabia saw only two “yea” votes from Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Paul himself.
Coleman and his employer, Hogan Lovells, are explicit about their role in helping to generate congressional support for Saudi Arabia’s interests.
Coleman and other Hogan Lovells employees working on the Saudi account engage in “specific advocacy assignments with regard to US Government officials, Members of Congress and their staffs, representatives of media organizations and/or other individuals involved in legislative, regulatory, public policy or public affairs matters, and/or in other activities of interest to the foreign principal,” reads a March disclosure by Hogan Lovells to the Justice Department.
Coleman is even clearer about his own role and opinions in interviews, two of them given in the wake of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside a Saudi consulate. Days after the murder, Coleman was one of the few American public figures willing to go on cable news to defend Saudi Arabia.
In an interview on CNN, he was asked if he would keep working for Saudi Arabia. When pressed, Coleman responded “Let’s make sure we don’t undermine a strategic relationship that’s important to the security of the United States.” In November 2018, a month after the murder, Coleman, faced with pointed questions from a local CBS reporter, said he did not advise Saudi officials but rather worked with members of Congress to ensure Saudi interests were addressed, specifically citing the Saudi interest in containing Iran’s influence.
Others see Coleman’s role as far more problematic.
“The infiltration of Saudi money and influence into our government via lobbyists like Norm Coleman isn’t just scandalous and shameful.”
“The infiltration of Saudi money and influence into our government via lobbyists like Norm Coleman isn’t just scandalous and shameful; it’s downright dangerous to our national security and the survival of our democracy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group founded by Khashoggi to advocate for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. “Coleman is an agent for the Saudi government, representing Saudi government interests, while he’s literally steering money to selected Republican candidates. That should disturb every American, Republican or Democrat.”
Other officials may not be able to follow Coleman’s own path from Congress to foreign agent. A bipartisan group of House members introduced new legislation, “Fighting Foreign Influence Act.”
The act would impose a lifetime ban on senior military officers, presidents, vice presidents, senior executive branch officials, and members of Congress from ever lobbying for a foreign principal.
So far, growing awareness about the role of foreign governments and their agents inside the U.S. appears to have had little impact on Coleman’s dual role as a Saudi foreign agent and Republican fundraiser. The Congressional Leadership Fund is already well into another election cycle, having raised over $171 million to support Republican candidates in the November midterms. More than $33 million of that came in 23 transactions from the Coleman-chaired dark-money group, the American Action Network. The origin of those funds remains a mystery.
Update: September 22, 2022, 5:16 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to reflect that Calvin Moore is a spokesperson for both the American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund. After initially responding on behalf of AAN, Moore wrote back after publication to say that he was a spokesperson for the two groups, though his statement responding on AAN’s behalf only referred to a single group.