For Ilhan Omar, not all foreign influence spending is bad

For Ilhan Omar, not all foreign influence spending is bad

During her time in Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has frequently voiced concern over the influence of foreign interests on American politics — most controversially with regard to the pro-Israel community in the U.S.

But when she visited Qatar last November to watch the World Cup, it was unclear who had paid for the trip, which the progressive lawmaker neglected to clarify. Her office did not answer questions from The New York Times in December about the funding source after she had returned.

It turns out that the trip was funded by the Qatari government, according to an annual House financial disclosure filed in May. The new statement, which has not previously been reported, shows Qatar paid for the four-day visit to Doha that overlapped with the U.S. men’s team’s opening match against Wales. Both “food” and “lodging” were covered by the Gulf nation, the disclosure indicates.

The Qatari Embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed it had paid for Omar’s visit to the Gulf kingdom last year. The congresswoman “accepted an invitation from the Embassy of Qatar to attend events in Doha in November 2022,” a spokesperson told Jewish Insider last week, “as part of a program authorized under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act,” or MECEA, which allows House members to take trips funded by foreign governments provided that the travel is later disclosed in their annual financial statements.

The embassy did not share an exact figure for the cost of the trip, which was not listed in Omar’s financial report.

Omar was not alone among congressional lawmakers who quietly accepted funding from Qatar to attend the World Cup last year, recent disclosures show. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, according to Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has been critical of Qatar. “We see a huge amount of Qatari influence in the halls of Congress on a regular basis,” he said in an interview with JI. “I don’t think that Ilhan Omar is unique in that sense.”

Still, Schanzer suggested that Omar’s visit stands out in particular because of her outspoken criticism of the pro-Israel lobby and its involvement in American politics — underscoring what he characterized as a kind of “selective outrage.”

“Perhaps her most famous quip is that support for Israel is ‘all about the Benjamins,’” Schanzer said, referring to comments Omar made as a freshman that were condemned as antisemitic and for which she later apologized. “If there is a lobby right now that is truly ‘all about the Benjamins,’ it is the lobby that is spending tens of millions of dollars per year in order to acquire influence in the capital of the United States,” he said of Qatar, which has drawn condemnation for its treatment of migrant workers and ban on homosexuality, among other matters. “She does not seem to be bothered by that.”

In a statement to JI, Jeremy Slevin, a spokesperson for Omar, defended the congresswoman’s decision to accept the junket to Doha. “Rep. Omar attended the World Cup on a delegation with several elected officials, including Democrats and Republicans,” Slevin said. “As a lifelong soccer fan, she was proud to support Team USA. She remains committed to upholding human rights and the rule of law around the world, including FIFA’s mistreatment of migrant workers, and she shared these concerns during her trip.”

Two months before the visit, Omar was among a group of House Democrats who signed on to a letter expressing “dismay regarding FIFA’s inaction and heel-dragging on human rights abuses in Qatar” — and requesting a “written response” concerning FIFA’s “commitment to concrete steps for migrant worker compensation and empowerment.”

But the Minneapolis lawmaker has been comparatively muted when it comes to raising concerns about Qatar itself, which has been criticized for boosting the Muslim Brotherhood and funding Hamas. On the other hand, she has frequently condemned human rights abuses not only in Israel but in other Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which were among a group of Arab countries that imposed a three-year blockade of Qatar beginning in 2017.

Omar does not appear to have spoken publicly about the Qatar trip until after it had ended. “It was such a delight to root for #TeamUSA at the World Cup in Qatar and today we are excited to root for them here at home,” she wrote on Twitter in late November, posting a photo with David Beckham. “It was fun watching a World Cup game with him.”

“You can call for accountability, you can ask for justice, but you can also just enjoy the beauty of the game,” Omar explained to Business Insider shortly after she returned from Qatar, emphasizing that “there are no perfect countries that have a perfect record.”

In addition to Omar, the Qatari government also paid for Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), André Carson (D-IN), Claudia Tenney (R-NY), Darin LaHood (R-IL) and Bryan Steil (R-WI) to visit Doha during the World Cup, according to financial statements reviewed by JI. With the exception of Carson — who as a congressman has traveled to Doha on multiple trips sponsored by the Gulf monarchy — the lawmakers’ offices did not respond to requests for comment from JI.

“Congressman Carson has traveled as a member of Congress to strategic locations, including those of our allies and security partners, with some trips sponsored by the United States or other governments,” Caroline Ellert, a spokesperson for Carson, said in a statement to JI on Tuesday. “As a champion of human rights, he has consistently addressed violations of human and civil rights and will continue to do so. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Carson typically does not publicize details of such trips or discussions during overseas trips.”

At least two other House members — Reps. David Valadao (R-CA) and Lou Correa (D-CA) — accepted invitations to attend the World Cup in Doha but failed to disclose the travel on their financial statements, their offices confirmed to JI on Tuesday.

“Rep. Valadao was in Doha on this trip,” said a spokesperson for the congressman. “There was a mistake in his financial disclosures, which we are now working to amend.”

A spokesperson for Correa attributed the omission to an “inadvertent oversight” and said the “trip was mistakenly not added” to his annual financial statement. “As such, the congressman has amended his financial disclosure to include this trip.”

The Qatari Embassy did not respond to requests for comment on its outreach to other House members, nor would it share a full list of lawmakers who accepted funding to attend the World Cup last year.

Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) were in Doha during the tournament, but their trips were funded by the U.S. government.

“The lack of super robust disclosure pre- and post-trip makes it harder to know the purpose of the trip and all the things you would get from privately sponsored travel,” Delaney Marsco, senior counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government watchdog, said in an interview with JI last week. “That’s not ideal from a transparency perspective.”

Months before the World Cup, Omar, for her part, also traveled to Pakistan, where she made a controversial visit to a disputed part of Kashmir that drew criticism from India. The six-day trip, which took place in April 2022, was funded by Pakistan’s government, according to her financial disclosure.

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