The Ice Cube-Steve Bannon-Qatar allegations, explained


One can imagine a hypothetical conversation in 1988 or so in which you get to be the one to tell then-rapper Ice Cube about his future.

“Your anti-establishment streak will be rewarded when you become part of an investigation into a sitting American president,” you might tell the young rapper, before giving him the downside: It’s a function of a failed investment in the three-man professional basketball league he founds with possible links to the Qatari government, and one of the people behind that investment might also have overlapped in questionable ways with staff for the president. Who, by the way, is Donald Trump.

Remarkably, that summary does not even do the story justice.

It begins with that basketball league, called Big3. It is a three-on-three league featuring a number of former NBA stars that begins its second season next month. Cube is co-CEO of the league, along with his longtime business partner Jeff Kwatinetz. The original commissioner for the league was former NBA player Roger Mason.

The most important name, though, is one you have probably never heard before: Ahmed Al-Rumaihi. According to a lawsuit filed by Cube and Kwatinetz, Al-Rumaihi and two friends, Faisal Al-Hamadi and Ayman Sabi, approached Big3 about a substantial investment possibly linked to the government of Qatar. They were connected to Cube and Kwatinetz through Mason, the commissioner — who apparently failed to mention he was dating Sabi’s sister.

The initial conversation came shortly after the league debuted in late June 2017. A few weeks earlier, tensions between Qatar and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf region had spiked, with the small peninsular country being blockaded by its larger neighbors. An expert who spoke with The Washington Post last fall explained the tension derives largely from Qatar’s long-standing rivalry with Saudi Arabia and tensions with the United Arab Emirates. Probably in part due to the United States’ close ties to Saudi Arabia, President Trump weighed in against Qatar in tweets shortly after the blockade began.

All of this is important to our story.

So Al-Rumaihi and his partner Sabi reached an agreement with Big3 to pay $11.5 million upon signing an agreement with the league and $9 million in sponsorship money over the next three years. But the LLC formed to pay that money, Sport Trinity LLC, only coughed up $6.5 million at the outset and an additional $1 million later on. When Mason was informed about an arbitration process begun to get the owed money, he allegedly sided with Al-Rumaihi and Sabi and was fired.

Cube and Kwatinetz are suing Al-Rumaihi and his partners both because of the failure to pay and because of what is described in the court filing as an attempt to undercut their leadership by alleging mismanagement and falsely accusing Kwatinetz of using racist language. That suit, seeking $1.2 billion, is beside the point.

In the suit and in a separate affidavit filed by Kwatinetz, the pair make remarkable claims about Al-Rumaihi’s intentions and assertions. The investment by Al-Rumaihi and, they believed, the Qatari government, was “unitarily focused on procuring influence in the United States for the [head of the Qatar Investment Authority Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud] Al-Thani regime through controlling a league made up of NBA stars and legends.” Reeling from the blockade, questions about the coming World Cup to be hosted in the country and, the suit alleges, an internal basketball scandal, the Qataris hoped to reposition their country via the association with Big3.

The suit also alleges Al-Rumaihi “frequently boasted of his friendship to Senator John McCain” (R-Ariz.) and claimed it was his visits to the ailing senator that prevented him from finalizing payment of the owed money. (The suit alleges the lack of payment was essentially meant to force Big3 to renegotiate the terms of the initial agreement in the Qataris’ favor to get the money owed.)

Now things get interesting. In his affidavit, Kwatinetz alleges Al-Rumaihi was more direct in describing his goals from the partnership with Big3. Before working with Big3, Kwatinetz ran a management company called The Firm. The Firm’s CFO was a person familiar to readers of The Post: Stephen K. Bannon.

Kwatinetz’s affidavit explains Al-Rumaihi’s focus.

“[T]here were numerous occasions during the 2017 season,” it reads, “where Mr. Al-Ruhmaihi would bring up Mr. Bannon’s name to me and comment about Mr. Bannon’s political positions, his views on the blockade, the Trump administration’s position toward Qatar, and he persistently inquired about wanting to meet with Mr. Bannon.” The season ended in mid-August, shortly before Bannon was fired.

After inviting Kwatinetz on a hike in January, after the release of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” led to conservative donor Rebekah Mercer ending financial support to Bannon, Al-Rumaihi made an unexpected pitch.

“Mr. Al-Rumaihi stated to me that he wanted me to convey a message from the Qatari Government to Steve Bannon,” the affidavit states. “Mr. Al-Rumaihi requested I set up a meeting between him, the Qatari government, and Steven Bannon, and to tell Steve Bannon that Qatar would underwrite all of his political efforts in return for his support.”

Kwatinetz writes he was offended and that neither he nor Bannon would ever take a bribe.

“Mr. Al-Rumaihi laughed” at that response, according to the affidavit, “and then stated to me that I shouldn’t be naive, that so many Washington politicians take our money, and stated ‘do you think Flynn turned down our money?’ ”

The Flynn being referred to is former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Al-Rumaihi, the affidavit says in its conclusion, probably “has a role, either formal or informal with Qatari intelligence.” A spokesman for Sport Trinity LLC called Kwatinetz’s assertions “pure Hollywood fiction.”

Enter Michael Avenatti.

Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels, a porn star who alleges she had a one-night stand with Trump in 2006, has proved to be quite adept at goading Trump and Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen. (You will remember it is Cohen who finalized the $130,000 payment to Daniels to keep her from talking about the alleged affair before the 2016 election.)

Over the weekend, Avenatti tweeted some images that presented a new layer to the Al-Rumaihi question.

The “sworn declaration” mentioned in the latter tweet is a reference to the affidavit described above. The question that precedes it is an interesting one. Al-Rumaihi can be seen in the first photograph Avenatti tweeted, bald with a beard. Why was he riding in an elevator with Cohen at Trump Tower in December 2016?

On Tuesday, he offered a brief explanation through a spokesman to CNN: “Al-Rumaihi was at Trump Tower on December 12, 2016. He was there in his then role as head of Qatar Investments, an internal division of QIA, to accompany the Qatari delegation that was meeting with Trump transition officials on that date. He did not participate in any meetings with Michael Flynn, and his involvement in the meetings on that date was limited.” Another person familiar with the situation told CNN that during one meeting, “Cohen briefly popped in.” During this period, we have recently learned, Cohen was actively seeking high-dollar clients for his consulting practice.

The Trump Tower meetings are by their very nature interesting. Qatar was very eager to build relationships with the new administration during the transition, an effort that was apparently unsuccessful given Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia and support of the blockade.

So Qatar briefly considered another course of action: informing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III about efforts by the UAE to influence the administration against Qatar. In March, NBC reported on that possibility, explaining the Qataris felt meetings between the UAE and administration figures were worthy of Mueller’s attention.

Our final characters in this tale now make their appearances. Elliott Broidy is a Republican Party donor who had been introduced to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan by a man named George Nader, who himself had met several times at the White House with Bannon and Trump adviser (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner.

Broidy owns a private security firm that has contracts with the UAE, according to the New York Times. He wrote a memo to the president arguing the U.S. should back the UAE’s positions in the Gulf, only to find the memo and some of his emails were hacked and leaked to the media. Broidy blamed the Qatari government, and filed suit against it.

Broidy’s name has been in the news for another reason recently: He was also a client of Michael Cohen’s, with Cohen assisting him in finalizing a payment to a Playboy playmate whom Broidy had impregnated.

That is where the story stands. From Ice Cube’s basketball league to a security contractor accusing a foreign government of hacking him even as he fends off questions about his affair with a playmate. The thread that ties it all together is the apparent interest of the Qatari government to build what relationships it could with the Trump administration and those close to it.

That effort does not seem to have been entirely successful.

Update: A spokesperson for Al-Rumaihi contacted The Post to offer several responses to this article.

She noted while Al-Rumaihi “previously worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of Qatar, he left the ministry in May 2016. After leaving the ministry, he worked with the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) until March 2017. Subsequently, he has been a private business person and investor.” She also reinforced the charges made by Kwatinetz were simply allegations, not statements of fact.

We have corrected some of the language above to make clear a direct link between the Big3 investment and the government of Qatar is speculative.

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