Key advisory body
The commission is essentially a part-time advisory body responsible for making final recommendations to the president of candidates for the prestigious White House fellowships, which President Lyndon B. Johnson created in 1964.
The candidates are usually accomplished professionals with sterling resumes. Fellows are typically given jobs in the White House and federal agencies. Past White House fellows include Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.
Hohlt said he is one of 19 commissioners who met over a weekend this month to interview the fellowship candidates — the commission’s only formal duty annually.
Hohlt stresses he has never lobbied the Trump administration on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which has aggressively courted Trump since he became president in January.
“That is not my role,” Hohlt said.
What role, then, does he play?
According to Hohlt’s disclosures with the Department of Justice, he registered to lobby for Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry in October and “provides them with advice on legislative and public affairs strategies.” He disclosed no direct contacts with government officials on the Saudis’ behalf as of April 30, the date covered by the latest Department of Justice report.
Hohlt said he was largely brought in to offer advice on overarching strategy and how the legislative process works.
He did directly contact some congressional offices in late May and June regarding an arms sale, he said, and those contacts will be disclosed in his next disclosure report, as required.
Hohlt added that he’s working for the Saudis without a formal contract. If the Saudis asked him to lobby for something the Trump administration opposed, “I’d say I’m not going to work on it,” Hohlt said.
For example, he said, the administration was in favor of the arms deal.
Trump strikes deals with Saudis
Trump’s first foreign trip as president came in May, when he visited Saudi Arabia.
While there, Trump touted the “tremendous” deals he said he struck with the Saudis, including an expanded arms agreement valued at $100 billion. During elaborate ceremonies, the Saudis heaped plaudits. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir praised Trump and praised his “vision,” “strength” and “decisiveness.”
Hohlt said he disclosed his Saudi lobbying job to Trump officials during the vetting process before his appointment.
White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said she had “nothing to add” in response to questions from the Center for Public Integrity about Trump’s appointment of Hohlt, including whether the Trump administration was aware Hohlt worked as a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry.
Love referred the question of whether the administration was aware of Hohlt’s representation of the Saudis to the White House fellows office, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Upon taking office, Trump issued an executive order on ethics that included, among other things, a lifetime ban on executive branch appointees engaging in work that would require registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, among other restrictions on lobbyists.
The law, known as FARA, is the same law that mandates disclosure of Hohlt’s work for Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s executive order doesn’t apply to part-time appointees such as Hohlt. Nonetheless, some government ethics experts still say the appointment presents a jarring contrast with the president’s statements.
And despite Trump’s order, he has issued ethics waivers to lobbyists who have taken full-time positions with the administration, including, for example, Michael Catanzaro, a former energy company lobbyist who is now a special assistant to the president and adviser on energy policy. The waiver allows Catanzaro to participate in matters on which he lobbied.
Hohlt is a Trump donor. He contributed $2,700, to Trump’s campaign in August and $5,000 to Trump’s transition in September, the maximum amounts permitted. Those contributions came before he registered to represent Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry in October.
Nonetheless, “Appointing someone who is registered under FARA as doing work for Saudi Arabia does seem odd at a time when he’s made a very big deal about not having people leave the government and then do work where they have to register under FARA,” said Larry Noble, the general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign reform organization.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, said, “There is truth to the slogan that personnel is policy. And so he’s appointing this lobbyist for Saudi Arabia to a commission that then recommends people for important positions.”
Hohlt also lobbies for numerous corporate clients. This year, he’s been registered to lobby on behalf of oil giant Chevron, the Motion Picture Association of America and a division of tobacco giant Altria, among others.
Asked about any potential conflict of interest, Hohlt pointed to the extremely part-time nature of his fellowship commission appointment.
“I guess I’m an old-fashioned lobbyist,” Hohlt said. “I know how to separate lobbying and not lobbying.”
This article was co-published by NBC News and Public Radio International.