A California businessman who donated more than $3 million illegally to Hillary Clinton’s campaign provided an explanation for his decision: he feared Donald Trump’s promised ban on Muslim visitors to the U.S. would destroy his travel-oriented business.
“He believed that his contribution to Hillary Clinton’s campaign would save his business,” said Megan Church, defense attorney for Los Angeles luxury transport provider Rani El-Saadi. “His company catered to clients who were travelers from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East — the same people Mr. Trump intended to ban from the U.S. A Trump presidency posed a fatal threat to Mr. El-Saadi’s business. That’s why he donated.”
Nevertheless, as El-Saadi’s trial in Washington began on Thursday, the prosecution offered an equally simplistic explanation for the $150,000 El-Saadi paid to attend a Clinton fundraiser in October 2016: Andy Khawaja, a much wealthier man who is in the payments business, gave El-Saadi the cash.
“This is a case about a large-scale conspiracy to funnel well in excess of $1 million into the U.S. political system — money that came from the United Arab Emirates,” prosecutor Michelle Parikh told the jury during the trial.
The case is far from simple in reality. What jury members heard on Thursday was enticing, but they aren’t being given many of the eye-catching details.
Khawaja, the founder of Allied Wallet, is believed to be a multibillionaire. Private jets, luxury hotels, and fancy cars characterized his lavish lifestyle as a Lebanon-born American. Jurors are aware that he is not present in court, but they are unsure why. Having fought extradition to the U.S. for over 2 years, he is currently in Lithuania. He has been declared a fugitive by Judge Randy Moss.
“Khawaja wanted very badly to gain power and influence in the U.S.,” Parikh stated.
In addition to the men who have pleaded guilty, five others are cooperating with the prosecution. One of them is George Nader, who has worked closely with the Trump White House on Mideast issues but has been charged with child pornography and received a 10-year sentence for sexual assault in 2020.
Nader’s cooperation with federal authorities, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller, appears to have led to the indictment. But Nader’s credibility has been tainted to the point that prosecutors won’t call him at the current trial. It is expected that four other men who have pleaded guilty will testify, Parikh said.
Parikh disclosed Thursday to jurors that millions donated to Clinton and almost $1 million directed to Republicans after Trump’s victory originated in the United Arab Emirates, but she did not bring up the more explosive allegation she aired in court earlier this week: that the money actually originated with the UAE government.
In Parikh’s words, both the Clinton and Republican campaigns were unaware that the money contributed by donors with no prior record of political giving originated from other sources.
The jury in other cases has sometimes had trouble understanding why straw campaign donations are important without evidence similar to a quid pro quo. Yet Parikh said there were “good reasons” why donating someone else’s money under your name is against the law. “Our political system is premised on transparency,” she asserted.
Diane Hamwi, the former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser, was the prosecution’s first witness who testified Khawaja hired her for $7,500 a month in the spring of 2016 to help him cultivate relationships with American politicians and to seek appointment to a Mideast-related government post or commission.
“He hired me to help him develop more relationships in the political sphere,” Hamwi revealed.
“I was ensuring that when he made the large contributions he was making that he was getting the most for that,” Hamwi concluded.
Hamwi said she explained to Khawaja how U.S. campaign finance rules work: how foreigners are not eligible to donate unless they are permanent U.S. citizens and how people can only donate their own money. Khawaja reportedly asked her how some countries, including Israel, donate a great deal of money to the U.S. political establishment. Her response was that foreign governments cannot fund campaigns, but can fund other players in the political scene, such as think tanks and lobbyists.
Mohammad Diab, a resident of Las Vegas and a cousin of Khawaja who worked for Allied Wallet in America, is also on trial with El-Saadi.
The lawyer for Diab, Harland Braun, suggested briefly to the jurors that the prosecution was the outcome of a political vendetta against Hillary Clinton. Moments later, however, the defense lawyer seemed to back off of this statement.
Prosecutors have to prove that the men knew they were breaking the law in addition to the fact that they made illegal donations in order to win convictions.
Khawaja’s attorney has been given a reserved seat in court, despite his status as a fugitive.
The jury assembly has been reconfigured to accommodate the 16 jurors and alternates in the gallery that normally hosts the press and public due to the Coronavirus pandemic. As the witnesses testified from the corner of the jury box, a law clerk sat on the stand near the judge, usually reserved for witnesses. Although lawyers and the judge typically remove their masks when they speak, transparent plastic shields were scattered throughout the room.