Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), one of five Democrats who joined the majority of House Republicans to block debate on the war in Yemen, had met with Saudi officials and foreign agents representing them on numerous occasions, TYT has learned. In one instance, shortly after the war began, Ruppersberger’s office met with a senior Saudi embassy official to discuss the war.
Some of the meetings appear in federal filings while another was disclosed to TYT by Ruppersberger’s office in response to TYT’s inquiries.
Ruppersberger has also accepted significant political contributions from firms representing Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies in the war, Justice Department records reviewed by TYT show. Despite Ruppersberger’s position that “of course” he cares about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, his office could not provide any examples of him speaking on the subject prior to the widely publicized vote.
“We adamantly object to any characterization that Ruppersberger voted the way he did because he has a cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Jaime Lennon, press secretary for Ruppersberger, told TYT.
Although the war has raged for several years, causing horrific human suffering, the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate has drawn new attention to America’s support for the kingdom, including its combat in Yemen.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) had introduced a bill to end U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Ruppersberger’s vote against even debating that bill drew ire from progressives seeking an end to U.S. participation in the war, which has driven Yemen to the brink of mass famine. Tommy Vietor, a former spokesperson for President Obama and the National Security Council and now host of the liberal podcast Pod Save America, tweeted, “Anyone want to primary some Democrats who voted to continue slaughtering civilians in Yemen?”
The motion to debate Khanna’s resolution failed by a razor-thin margin of 206-203, with Ruppersberger and four other Democrats providing Republicans the votes they needed to kill it.
Earlier that week, Republicans had quietly tied the Yemen resolution to a procedural vote on the annual farm bill, despite them being completely unrelated. Ruppersberger and others attributed their votes to concern over passage of the farm bill, which provides agricultural subsidies and other forms of aid.
Lennon told TYT, “It is extremely disingenuous to say Congressman Ruppersberger voted for the rule to advance the farm bill because he is a supporter of Saudi Arabia. He voted the way he did to advance the farm bill to ensure 45 million Americans who rely on SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] to feed their families would be able to do so and for no other reason. He looks forward to voting in favor of Rep. Khanna’s resolution.”
However, observers have pointed out that voting against the farm bill would not have killed it, it merely would have required Republicans to renegotiate the procedural vote, not defeated the legislation itself.
When Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein asked one of the five Democrats, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), for his thoughts on the Yemen conflict, he said he was unfamiliar with the issue.
“I don’t know a damn thing about it,” Peterson said.
Ruppersberger, in contrast, said he was familiar with Yemen. As he noted in a Baltimore Sun column, “I’ve been to Yemen several times and I understand the dire circumstances there exacerbated by this war.”
Unlike Peterson and the three other Democrats who voted against the Yemen resolution, Ruppersberger was until recently a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. An eight-term congressman just elected to his ninth, he has represented Maryland’s 2nd congressional district since 2003. The district is home to the National Security Agency. Perhaps unsurprisingly, aerospace defense firms are the top industry campaign contributors to Ruppersberger, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The farm bill wasn’t the first vote involving the Yemen conflict in which Ruppersberger found common cause with Republicans. In 2016, he was one of just 16 Democrats who joined a majority of Republicans in voting against an amendment that would have banned the transfer of U.S.-manufactured cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. (Cluster bombs are banned under an international treaty signed by 119 countries but not the U.S.) Like last week’s Yemen resolution, the amendment narrowly failed — with a vote of 204-216.
Documents filed with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit provide some insights into Ruppersberger’s relationship with Riyadh. Ruppersberger’s office also shared numerous specifics with TYT about specific contacts and meetings since hostilities broke out in the Yemeni civil war in late March of 2015.
Lennon, Ruppersberger’s press secretary, confirmed to TYT via email that Ruppersberger’s staff attended a meeting that pertained to Yemen on June 9 of 2015. The meeting was with a senior staff member of the Saudi embassy.
“Topics included the new Saudi leadership and its recognized commitment to antiterrorism, the joint antiterrorism working group, the effort to achieve a negotiated settlement of the Yemen conflict,” Lennon told TYT.
On July 29, a representative of the Saudi government met with Ruppersberger and his military legislative assistant, Justin Brower. The Justice Department records are vague, describing the topic of the exchange as, “issues affecting U.S. — Saudi Arabia national security interests.”
Lennon confirmed that another meeting took place between the charge d’affaires of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, but said that it was about the Iran deal — at the time a proposal under President Obama.
All three meetings were coordinated by DLA Piper, a law firm that had registered to represent the Saudi government.
Justice Department records describe the “Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia” corresponding with Ruppersberger’s chief of staff and his legislative director via email on five separate occasions about “issues affecting U.S - Saudi Arabia national security interests” between January 11 and February 23 of 2016.
Although federal law prohibits foreigners from making campaign contributions, their U.S.-based lobbyists can. On February 8, 2016, DLA Piper gave $3,500 to the Dutch Ruppersberger for Congress Committee. In 2016, Ruppersberger was a top recipient of campaign contributions from DLA Piper’s PAC, second only to Mike Rogers (R-AL).
In one filing, DLA Piper reports getting $315,000 from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close ally of Saudi Arabia and coalition partner in the Yemen war.
According to Ben Freeman, director of the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s lobbying often overlap, especially with regards to the Yemen issue.
“The Saudis and Emiratis are very often working towards the same goals, so their influence operations here in D.C. can be very complementary,” Freeman said. “You really see this in their work around the war in Yemen. Their lobbyists are reaching out to a lot of the same offices. Their talking points are similar.”
Ruppersberger’s contributions from DLA Piper continued. On October 27 of 2016, DLA Piper’s PAC contributed $2,700 to Ruppersberger. In the same filing, the firm reported having received $1,846,232 from the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
On March 25 of this year, Ruppersberger received $4,250 from DLA Piper. The same filing shows the firm receiving $15,000 from the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates and $22,736 from the Kingdom of Bahrain, another coalition partner.
Late last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) reportedly wrote to 18 different lobbying groups that have represented Saudi Arabia, demanding that they disclose the nature of their work. In addition, Warren sent letters to five firms that said they would stop lobbying for Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s murder, seeking to confirm that they had followed through with their pledge.
“This ongoing status as a representative of Saudi government interests raises questions about whether your firm prioritizes profit margins over basic human rights, and whether it is ethically and morally defensible for American lobbyists to be providing services to a repressive foreign regime that does not share America's values,” Warren wrote.
One of these firms, Glover Park Group, corresponded with Ruppersberger on multiple occasions since the war began.
Justice Department filings show that on October 25 of 2016, Glover Park contributed $1,000 to Ruppersberger. The same filing lists the “Government of Saudi Arabia, Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia” as a foreign principal. The documents describe email correspondence on four separate occasions and one meeting between Ruppersberger’s office on the subject of U.S. relations with Egypt, another Saudi coalition member. Similar correspondence is listed in a 2017 filing.
Then, in 2018, Glover Park gave Ruppersberger $500. The same filing states that Glover Park “provided communications and government relations counsel and support to the Government of Saudi Arabia in connection with general foreign policy and related matters.”
Following public backlash, last Friday Ruppersberger wrote his column in the Baltimore Sun, titled, “Ruppersberger: Farm Bill vote broke my heart.” In it, Ruppersberger responds to critics of his vote.
“The…question I got was this: don’t you care about the starving children in Yemen? The answer is, ‘of course.’ As a father, a grandfather, a man of faith and conscience, I am sickened by the graphic images we are seeing from journalists documenting the humanitarian crisis. I’ve been to Yemen several times and I understand the dire circumstances there exacerbated by this war. And my record reflects this.”
However, TYT was unable to find a single remark by Ruppersberger about the humanitarian crisis in the Congressional Record or in any news media before the vote. One of the only references Ruppersberger publicly made regarding Yemen was to characterize it as a haven for “terror networks.”
“It is important to note that the legislation under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives applies only to Syrian and Iraqi refugees—but not refugees from other countries with known terror networks including Yemen, Nigeria and Afghanistan,” Ruppersberger said.
TYT asked Ruppersberger’s press secretary for any statements he made prior to the vote that might reflect his alleged concern for Yemen. Referring to the backlash over his vote, Lennon replied, “It’s accurate to say that the unfortunate events of last week have inspired him to take a more aggressive approach when it comes to ending the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”
When TYT asked Ruppersberger’s office to clarify the purpose of his trips to Yemen, Lennon replied, “Congressman Ruppersberger traveled to Yemen prior to 2015 for counter-terrorism related purposes as part of his oversight responsibilities as a then-member of the House Intelligence Committee.”
“[Ruppersberger] intends to lead the charge and leverage his role as a Defense Appropriator to ensure no money in the FY2020 Defense Appropriations Bill can be used for unauthorized military operations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has played an important role as a partner against terrorism, but it’s become clearer and clearer that U.S. support has only contributed to the dire circumstances in Yemen and that needs to stop.”
In his column, Ruppersberger also states, “I am cosponsoring Congressman [Ro] Khanna’s resolution to withdraw our troops from Yemen.” Ruppersbergers’ name is now listed as a cosponsor.)
In August, TYT reported on new Pentagon plans to train Saudi pilots on U.S. soil — specifically on weapons systems. TYT has also reported that U.S.-made helicopters were being used by the Saudis in combat in Yemen and that the Pentagon plans to provide maintenance for the Royal Saudi Air Force through 2025..
While the new House, which will be under Democratic control, appears likely to pass Khanna’s resolution, that could be months from now — precious time for a country in which 14 million face imminent famine. Yemen is also in the throes of the greatest cholera epidemic in the world.
Sarah Leah Whitson, of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Director, told TYT, “Putting off the vote on the Yemen resolution for a few months may not seem like a big deal, but millions of Yemenis are now on the verge of starvation due to this catastrophic war and actually can’t wait; now would have been the best moment, given the current ceasefire and the intense pressure Saudi Arabia is under, for Congress to force a discussion on America’s role in this war and use its leverage to curb the Saudi coalitions’ worst abuses.”