by Eli Clifton
You’d think that National Security Advisor John Bolton would have plenty on his plate on the Saturday before President Donald Trump’s high-stakes Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. There’s also the matter of heightening tensions over aid deliveries to Venezuela amidst the Trump administration’s decision to publicly throw its backing behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
But the national security advisor found time on Saturday to take to Twitter and defend a non-governmental anti-Iran pressure group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), against criticisms from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called UANI “openly biased” in response to letters that the group sent to Russian firms operating in Iran urging them to report on their business activities in Iran.
“We think such actions are unacceptable and deeply concerning. Attempts to pressure and threaten Russian business…are a follow-up on the dishonorable anti-Iranian cause by the US administration,” the spokeswoman said, according to the Pakistan-based website UrduPoint News, the only publication that appeared to pick up the story.
But it seemed to hit a nerve for the national security advisor who previously served on UANI’s advisory board and appeared at the group’s 2018 “Iran Summit” alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, and Israeli Mossad Director Yossi Cohen.
Attempts by Russian gov. to intimidate Amb. Wallace & @UANI are unacceptable. If President Putin is serious about stabilizing the Middle East, confronting terrorism & preventing a nuclear arms race in the region, he should stand with UANI & against Iran.
Why would the national security advisor care what the Russian Foreign Ministry has to say about a New York-based nonprofit’s letter writing campaign, especially when those remarks got virtually no notice in the media?
Bolton’s personal finances and the president’s biggest campaign funder offer a couple clues.
Bolton’s financial disclosures show that between September 2015 and April 2018, he received $165,000 from the Counter-Extremism Project (CEP), a group with overlapping staffers, board members, and finances with UANI. According to the Bolton’s disclosures, the payments were “consulting fees.”
Following that money trail further, there are plenty of questions about where the $165,000 paid to Bolton by the CEP may have come from.
CEP doesn’t disclose its donors, but Twitter expressed concerns about its funding sources in 2015 when it declined to participate in a CEP and State Department event to combat radicalism online.
A Twitter spokesman told BuzzFeed News that Twitter declined to work with the group when it reached out to the company last year because of concerns over its “undisclosed funding.” Twitter was invited by the State Department to the event on Monday and declined to participate, again due to questions about the CEP’s funding, the spokesman said.
Emails originating from UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al-Otaiba’s email account appeared to suggest financial ties between the CEP and UANI and the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. UANI and the CEP regularly give voice to the same anti-Iran and anti-Qatar positions expressed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
An email from George W. Bush administration diplomat Mark Wallace, who serves as CEO of both UANI and CEP, to Otaiba on September 3, 2014, contains a reference to “cost estimates” for an upcoming “forum.” It’s unclear whether Wallace is referring to a UANI event or CEP’s upcoming launch later that month. Wallace writes:
Forum concept. Was asked for an [sic] included very aggressive meaning high cost estimates and we included that. Believe that this will be self-funding in short order with donors and attendees that we would attract.. Thanks and look forward to actually meeting.
Wallace wrote back again two days later, providing Otaiba with CEP “polling data from May/June in US and Europe and updated US polling just completed now.” Wallace concludes, “Please keep these updates confidential and thank you.”
In a January 8, 2015 email, CEP President Frances Townsend thanked Otaiba and Richard Mintz, a lobbyist working for UAE, for their “ongoing support of the CEP effort!”
And on August 8, 2016, the Saudi lobbyist and former senator, Norm Coleman, appears to have written a message to Otaiba specifying CEP’s tax status on behalf of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir. “Foreign Minister Al Jubeir recommended that I follow up with you on the attached matter. The Counter Extremism Project is a 501c4. Let me know if you have any questions,” wrote Coleman.
Although CEP’s funding and the origin of Bolton’s $165,000 remain opaque, UANI’s funding is slightly better known.
The group is largely funded by precious metal speculator Thomas Kaplan, who links a number of his investments to instability in the Middle East. The Justice Department accused Kaplan’s investment firm, the Electrum Group, of receiving $150 million in laundered funds from Malaysia’s economic development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
According to The Wall Street Journal, “[Otaiba] received $66 million from offshore companies that investigators in the U.S. and Singapore have said contained funds misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the documents show.” Emails provided to LobeLog appear to show UAE lobbyists and advisors expressing concern about Kaplan and Otaiba’s links to 1MDB and requesting that they not appear onstage together at a 2016 event.
GOP and Trump megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson also contributed $500,000 in 2013. (That same year Adelson suggested that the United States should fire an “atomic weapon” at Iran rather than negotiate.) UANI’s budget ballooned to almost $5.2 million in 2016, but the source of the group’s ongoing funding is largely untraceable and undisclosed by the organization.
After Trump’s 2016 election victory, an effort that the Adelsons helped fund with $35 million in outside spending, Sheldon Adelson reportedly advocated for Bolton’s appointment as deputy secretary of state, a move blocked by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Adelson continued his advocacy for Bolton, helping him circumvent then-Chief of Staff John Kelly and influence Trump to add language to an October 2017 UN speech in which Trump threatened to scrap the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran.
Why Bolton chose to take issue with a largely overlooked criticism of an anti-Iran pressure group is still anyone’s guess.
But Bolton’s own payments from UANI’s affiliate and his ties, as well as Trump’s political debt, to UANI donor Sheldon Adelson provide certain financial incentives for the national security advisor’s comments.