Buttigieg's Money Quest Shadowed by Donor's Saudi Ties

Buttigieg's Money Quest Shadowed by Donor's Saudi Ties
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Buttigieg's Money Quest Shadowed by Donor's Saudi Ties
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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The moral authority of the United States has become an open global question, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” But the rising star’s own moral authority may also be in doubt given his courting of a Saudi-tied investment group for campaign contributions.

The context: Iran last week attacked two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been busy trying to rally the world against the unprovoked aggression. But because of the current occupant of the Oval Office, Buttigieg complained to NBC host Chuck Todd, “a lot of people are thinking twice at a moment when America’s word should be decisive.”

One thing keeping this country from being taken seriously in the region, he said, is hypocrisy on Saudi Arabia, particularly a president who approves an arms deal with a nation that murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“We should consider putting the brakes on that relationship at a moment when, again, our values are being called into question,” Buttigieg said, “because the president seems to think that a pending arms deal is more important than speaking up about the fact that an American resident, a journalist, was killed and dismembered.”

It was a nuanced foreign policy statement from a former intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, the kind of thing that has turned the little-known Midwestern mayor into a middle-tier-and-rising presidential contender. Notably, however, it came three days after Buttigieg held a fundraiser at the home of Hamilton James -- a longtime Democratic donor, a political bundler for the likes of Hillary Clinton, and also the executive vice chairman of the Blackstone Group and an architect of a $20 billion deal to use Saudi dollars to fund U.S. infrastructure projects.

Blackstone, the largest alternative investment firm in the world, has long counted Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Public Investment Fund as a major client, according to the New York Times. The infrastructure deal was in the works before the last presidential election and long before the death of Khashoggi, for which bin Salman is widely believed to be responsible.

“No one else is in all the categories of infrastructure, in all the regions of the world and all the different classes of infrastructure,” James told the New York Times in 2017 after the deal was announced. “So, I think we have an opportunity to establish overnight a leadership position.”

Blackstone has moved forward with their Saudi deal since then, shrugging off general human rights concerns and waving away criticism in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. The White House has done the same, defending Trump’s decision to sell the Saudis $8 billion worth of military hardware.

Buttigieg apparently sees the two deals differently. On national television Sunday, he condemned the arms agreement. At a private fundraiser on Thursday, he rubbed elbows with the Blackstone executive responsible for cultivating private Saudi investments — the same day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed publicly that Democrats would stop Trump from selling materiel to the Saudis.

The Buttigieg campaign did not respond to RealClearPolitics when asked about Saudi Arabia, Blackstone, and moral authority. The candidate is in the middle of a fundraising blitz to solidify the monetary foundation needed for a contending presidential campaign.

As it turns out, the 37-year-old mayor is a political money machine. After being dismissed for making a quixotic White House bid, he responded by raising $7 million in the first three months of the year, qualifying for the first Democratic debate next week and catapulting himself toward the front of the primary pack.

And unlike Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, Buttigieg didn’t have an army of small dollar donors or nationwide name recognition when he started. He has scrapped his way into the national spotlight from the Rust Belt with a resume that included two mayoral terms and a seven-month tour in Afghanistan.

Also unlike Sanders, Buttigieg has done his best to court the moneyed elite.

The candidate has crisscrossed the country to attend cocktail hours and dinners on both coasts. Tickets ran between $28 and $2,800 at two recent San Francisco receptions, Politico reported. The smaller amount got donors through the door and the larger amount, the maximum allowable donation under federal campaign finance rules, provided access to a VIP-only reception.

The upstart candidate calls his top-tier bundlers his “National Investors Circle.” They have pledged to raise $250,000 during the primary. In exchange, Politico also reports, those bundlers will receive access to events, calls with senior campaign officials, and quarterly briefings with Buttigieg himself.

This strategy — convincing donors to give, give again, and then convincing others to do the same — has been working. Buttigieg raised another $7 million in April alone, matching his first three-month haul and building the financial momentum needed as the primary race picks up speed.

Along the way, Buttigieg picked up the backing of James. How he feels about his patron’s Blackstone-Saudi deal and whether he sacrificed any moral standing in pursuit of political viability remain to be seen.

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