Saudi Arabia has elicited the help King & Spalding, an influential law firm tied to the Trump administration, in a bid to secure US support for a nuclear program.
A law firm that reportedly has advised President Trump’s real estate empire registered last month to lobby the Trump administration as part of Saudi Arabia’s bid for U.S. approval for a civilian nuclear power program, federal documents show.
King & Spalding, an international law firm headquartered in Atlanta that reportedly has worked for Trump’s real estate concerns, disclosed that Saudi Arabia was paying the firm up to $450,000 for a 30-day period. The disclosures were made in a filing with the Justice Department, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
The contract was registered with the DOJ on February 21. Five days later, Energy Secretary Rick Perry canceled a trip to India so he could fly to London to discuss a nuclear cooperation agreement with senior Saudi officials. Such an agreement could open the door for lucrative U.S. contracts to build the kingdom’s new power plants.
The filing does not specify the date range. It includes an email dated February 20, in which King & Spalding indicates the work for Saudi Arabia had yet to begin, and said the 30-day period was an “initial” span that could be extended in the future. The Saudis said publicly in December that they hoped to begin talks within “weeks.”
The Trump Administration’s negotiations around Saudi nuclear power have been controversial. Unlike other countries seeking the use of U.S. nuclear technology, Saudi Arabia refuses to sign any agreement prohibiting uranium enrichment, which could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
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King & Spalding and its alumni have multiple connections to the Trump Administration.
FBI Director Christopher Wray made millions there, according to disclosure forms, as a litigation partner from 2005 through the summer of 2017. Last June, civil liberties organizations including the ACLU criticized Trump’s nomination of Wray for its potential conflicts of interest.
In addition to a New York Times report that King & Spalding advised the Trump real-estate empire, the ACLU’s national political director told the Times, “Christopher Wray’s firm’s legal work for the Trump family, his history of partisan activity, as well as his history of defending Trump’s transition director during a criminal scandal makes us question his ability to lead the F.B.I. with the independence, even-handed judgment, and commitment to the rule of law that the agency deserves.”
King & Spalding’s website also says the company has advised Rosneft Oil Co., the Russian state-controlled oil company. Prior to his confirmation, Wray reportedly deleted a Russian client from his bio on King & Spalding’s website, drawing widespread criticism.
According to the King & Spalding FARA registration, the firm will “advise MEIM [Ministry of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] in connection with a potential bilateral agreement on cooperation with the United States concerning peaceful uses of nuclear energy under Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (“123 Agreement”) and related matters concerning the development of a commercial nuclear program.”
While the Trump administration appears open to the Saudis pursuing a civilian nuclear program, many observers are critical. The idea of waiving the 123 Agreement’s “gold standard” restriction on uranium enrichment in a region as volatile as the Middle East has drawn particular attention.
Lovely Umayam, an authority on nuclear security for the Stimson Center (a nonpartisan think tank focused on international security issues), told TYT, “It’s tempting to waive the gold standard for Saudi Arabia to secure a deal that could invigorate a struggling U.S. nuclear industry, but we cannot look at this situation purely as a business transaction. If the Trump administration decides to omit the gold standard for the Saudis, I suspect that Iran will adversely react to seeing an arch-rival keep open the possibility of ‘nuclear hedging.’ Pitting Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other in terms of their nuclear capabilities could be a backward step for nonproliferation efforts in the region. Also, this could set a precedent for future 123 agreement negotiations, signaling to other countries that the United States would be willing to dilute its stance on nonproliferation if money is involved.”
“Overall, I think this is quite a smart power play for the Saudis—it puts the United States in an awkward position of having to choose between a lucrative opportunity (and a chance to reinforce Trump’s role as a strong advocate for U.S. businesses) or demonstrate that the U.S. will not compromise as a global champion for nonproliferation, especially in the politically volatile Middle East.”
Kingston Reif, the Arms Control Association’s director for disarmament & threat reduction policy, echoes Umayam’s concerns. Reif told TYT, “Saudi Arabia’s current interest in a nuclear program is driven much more by its security competition with Iran than its desire to diversify its energy options.”
“In the forthcoming negotiations on a possible civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, the United States should insist on the Additional Protocol, which allows for expanded IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] access to nuclear sites and materials and Saudi Arabia has yet to sign or ratify. It should also seek the strongest assurances that Saudi Arabia will not pursue enrichment and reprocessing. Three of the past four 123 agreements that the United States has negotiated not involving a nuclear-armed state (the UAE, Taiwan, and Vietnam) have included either a legally or politically binding commitment not to enrich or reprocess. And no non-nuclear country has ever built nuclear weapons under the Additional Protocol.”
“The Trump administration has significant leverage to pursue the strongest nonproliferation conditions in a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia but I’m concerned that the administration may not use that leverage, in part out of spite for the Iran Deal.”
Congress has also been critical of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions, perhaps most notably Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “It seems crazy to loosen important nonproliferation standards just to try to secure an uncertain commercial deal,” Markey said.
After news broke of Secretary Perry’s plan to travel to London to negotiate a nuclear agreement with the Saudis, Markey sent a letter to both Perry and Secretary of State Tillerson, reminding them of their “obligation to inform Congress of any effort related to a new agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation.”
Markey’s office told TYT that the Trump administration has not responded to his letter.
A State Department official with knowledge of the talks, though declining to comment on the substance of ongoing negotiations, told TYT, “The United States remains committed to minimizing the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Agreements for peaceful nuclear cooperation are one tool the United States utilizes in order to advance that objective.” The official was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
Top Photo | U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for Israel from Saudi Arabia, the next stop in his international tour, at King Khalid International Airport, May 22, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP/Evan Vucci)
Ken Klippenstein is a national security reporter based in Madison, Wisconsin.