Cambodia Splashes $1.2M Into Trump’s Swamp

18 min read
Hun Sen and Donald Trump at the Asean Summit in Manila, November 2017

Prime Minister Hun Sen has not been afraid of making his feelings clear about U.S. pressure on Cambodia’s dire record on human rights and democracy.

From calling American critics of Cambodian elections “long noses” who do not understand the country’s unique form of democracy in 2002 to accusing the U.S. ambassador last year of being a “liar” and purveyor of “wind and smoke” with threats of sanctions, Hun Sen has stressed he has little interest in any advice.

His dismissiveness has only grown more blunt as the White House slammed last year’s national election as “neither free nor fair” due to the absence of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and as the U.S. has made repeated calls for opposition leader Kem Sokha’s immediate release from house arrest.

Facing a concerted CNRP-led campaign to have the U.S. withdraw Cambodia’s tariff-free access to its market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) scheme if it does not change course and accede to demands to re-democratize Cambodia, Hun Sen’s response has been characteristically pithy: “You eat bread and I eat rice.”

Yet with Cambodia having inherited the baguette from the French, Hun Sen knows just as well as Americans that bread is best when buttered — and his government has this year accordingly started to splash out the necessary grease to have its voice heard among the long-nosed bread eaters in the Washington D.C. lobbying “swamp.”

Over a two-month period in April and May, Hun Sen’s government hired nine lobbyists to do its bidding in the halls of Washington D.C, according to filings made under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a 1938 law that requires citizens representing foreign governments to disclose their relationships.

The total cost: $1.2 million, with $720,000 earmarked as a retainer for the high-profile Washington D.C. firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and $500,000 set aside for the otherwise little known Washington State-based “PacRim Bridges.”

With some 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports going to the U.S. — and the 40 percent that go to Europe thanks to its similar tariff-exemptions scheme also under threat for similar reasons — the cash splash appears aimed at preventing the loss of the GSP.

Unlike the European Union — which is presently in the middle of an 18-month review of Cambodia’s continued eligibility for it’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) tariff exemptions scheme that started in February — Cambodia’s GSP privileges in the U.S. could be summarily suspended or revoked at the pen-stroke of U.S. President Donald Trump.

There are presently two draft bills before the U.S. Congress pushing for this. One bill — the Cambodia Trade Act of 2019 — was introduced by the Republican Ted Cruz in the Senate on January 8 and in the House of Representatives by Democrat Alan Lowenthal on February 26, and would require Trump to make a decision on Cambodia’s GSP status.

The other, introduced in the House as the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019 with the co-sponsorship of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel — who is a Democrat — and in the Senate as the Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2019 by the high-profile Republican Lindsey Graham, would force a temporary suspension in Cambodia’s eligibility for the GSP preferences.

Thanks to the high-profile backing, the bills are moving through Congress.

On Wednesday, Lowenthal, whose 47th district in California covers Long Beach, which has the largest Cambodian-American population in the U.S., pushed for the passage of the Trade Act in the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Cambodia currently benefits from tariff exemptions or reductions under the generalized system of preferences, but substantial evidence suggests that Cambodia has not fulfilled its obligations under this program,” Lowenthal said.

“The 34-year regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been accused of serious labor and human rights violations, as well as actions to undermine the nation’s path towards democracy by abolishing all political opposition or dissent.”

He noted the E.U. was currently in the middle of reviewing Cambodia’s eligibility for its EBA scheme due to the recent attacks on democracy and human rights, and called for his congressional colleagues to approach the issue with the same urgency.

“I urge the committee to strongly consider my bipartisan and bicameral legislation, which is called the Cambodia Trade Act — or any other means to use our trade relationship with Cambodia to address these human rights violations,” he said.

BROWNSTEIN HYATT FARBER SCHRECK

Yet the Cambodian government is not giving up without a fight.

The most high-profile lobbyist to register a FARA filing to lobby for Hun Sen’s government is Brian Wild, the policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which last year reported revenues of $31.2 million and has ranked No. 2 among all Washington D.C. political lobbying firms by revenue every year since 2015.

Wild submitted his FARA filing on May 23. The filing notes recent donations to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference, and says he was hired to: “Provide government relations services and strategic counsel on matters before the US government.”

Wild has a strong pedigree as a Republican insider. Besides his lobbying career on the Washington D.C. circuit, Wild’s career as a politico includes periods as:

  • A senior adviser to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy from 2010 to 2011, when the Republicans held the House;
  • An assistant on legislative affairs to then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney from 2004 to 2005 during President George W. Bush’s second term; and
  • Chief of staff to then-Rep. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania (who has served as a senator for the state since 2011) between 2001 and 2004.

Another of the high-profile Brownstein Hyatt lobbyists hired by the Cambodian government according to the recent FARA filings is Al Mottur — a strategist for the Democratic Party and a high-profile figure on the fundraising committee for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

The bipartisan team of Mottur, a Democrat, and Marc Lampkin — another former Republican adviser to Boehner also on the Cambodia contract — has been named on Washington D.C. political insider newspaper The Hill’s annual Top Lobbyists list in its “Hired Guns” category together every year from 2011 to 2018.

Lampkin was also the deputy manager of President Bush’s 2000 campaign.

A former managing partner for the Brownstein Hyatt D.C. office, Mottur lobbies for the Saudi Arabian government in the U.S. Congress. In November, following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Turkish embassy, Mottur said that he was still happy to lobby for the country despite the grizzly killing.

“We don’t believe it is in our client’s interest, in our interest or in the United States’ interest to abandon them during this crisis,” Mottur told The Colorado Sun.

Wild, Lampkin and Mottur join four other lobbyists from Brownstein Hyatt on the $180,000 quarterly retainer, according to the firm’s original April 10 FARA filing:

  • Brian McKeon, a former adviser to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and long-serving former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California (both Democrats);
  • David Cohen, a former deputy national political director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC);
  • Ari Zimmerman, a former adviser to Rep. John Carter of Texas, a Republican who was secretary of the party’s House caucus;
  • Douglas Maguire, whose firm profile claims more than 20 years’ experience in advisory services including “international government affairs support.”

Wild did not respond to requests for comment about his new role with Cambodia.

However, the lobbyist has been vocal in U.S. media about the machinations of lobbying in the era of President Trump, who had promised during his 2016 presidential campaign to “drain the swamp” of slippery lobbyists in D.C.

“I don’t think that anything’s really changed,” Wild told Politico in 2017 of the Trump era of D.C. lobbying. “If anything, the lobbying business is booming right now.”

In a separate interview, Wild said that lobbying the Trump administration had pitfalls as there were “so many different bases [and] because you never know who he’s listening to” — but that it could also be easier than lobbying regular politicians.

“Typically, these candidates build out a pretty profound policy notebook throughout the campaign, and then when they get elected they’re implementing that,” he said. With Trump’s team, “they’re kind of building this policy notebook in real time.”

Sophal Ear, associate professor of world affairs and diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said the move to hire the lobbyists seemed to show Hun Sen had serious concerns about losing Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the U.S.

“Brownstein Hyatt is a serious lobbying firm and the hiring of Brian Wild could be a game-changer for Cambodia. It’s now the big leagues for Cambodia and they are paying some serious cash,” Ear said in an email. “But of course, with lobbyists, more is always better — so $180,000 per quarter is not that much for them.”

“The Saudis did $100 milion in the first decade of the 21st century, so if Cambodia wants to play with the big boys, it needs to add a zero to the $180,000 and put-up some serious coin. It will only be one high-end Patek Philippe [watch] per quarter.”

DOUG ERICKSEN’S ‘PACRIM BRIDGES’

The seven lobbyists from Brownstein Hyatt and their $720,000 annual retainer join with the Washington State politicians Doug Ericksen (a sitting state senator) and Jay Rodne (a former state House rep) and their “PacRim Bridges” firm.

According to an April 3 FARA filing made by the pair, Hun Sen’s government shelled out $500,000 for their lobbying services in America — inevitably raising a few eyebrows given Ericksen’s role as a holder of a minor electoral office.

Hun Sen and Doug Ericksen

Besides questions about what influence Ericksen could have as a state senator for Washington State’s rural Whatcom County constituency — some 4,500 kilometers from Washington D.C. — the ethics of his dual roles have come under question.

The Seattle Times, for instance, on May 14 published an op-ed calling for Ericksen to relinquish his state senate seat if he wished to lobby for Hun Sen. Ericksen has in the past come under fire for serving as an election observer at Cambodia’s July 2018 national election and describing the vote as “very free [and] very fair.”

However, the appeal of Ericksen to Hun Sen’s government as an ally is also clear. Ericksen has long touted himself as a close political ally of Trump, and The Northwest Citizen, a local independent news site for Whatcom County, even described their relationship as a budding “bromance” in February 2018.

Ericksen notably served as the deputy campaign chairman of Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign in Washington State. He was also publicly thanked by Trump for organizing a rally on May 7, 2016 for him that reportedly cost taxpayers $300,000 in order to provide security, according to The Whatcom Watch newspaper.

Coming only three days after Trump had secured an unassailable lead in the Republican primaries, the newly presumptive presidential candidate said he was grateful to Ericksen for his work organizing the Trump campaign in the state.

“I want to thank a couple of people. First of all, your senator, Doug — where’s Doug? Doug Ericksen. Doug — where is he? — and his family,” Trump said.

After Trump’s victory in the November 2016 election, Ericksen was named a member of Trump’s “transitional team” and placed in charge of communications for the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington State’s News Tribune reported.

“It’s an incredible honor when the president of the United States — no matter what political party they belong to — invites you to be and asks you to be part of the first 200 people to work on the transition of the federal agencies,” he said at the time.

Still, the state senator’s true influence on Trump has yet to be proved. Ear, the Aid Dependence in Cambodia author, said Ericksen was just “a useful idiot.”

Donald Trump and Doug Ericksen

Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn did not respond to requests for comment about the hiring of the lobbying firms and telephone calls went unanswered. Cambodia’s ambassador in the U.S., Chum Sounry, who signed the FARA documents on behalf of the government, also did not respond to requests for comment or answer calls.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he had “no idea” about the hiring of Brownstein Hyatt or Ericksen’s PacRim Bridges to lobby for Cambodia. Asked if he could provide any comment on the $1.2-million spend, Siphan said: “Not at all.”

However, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ket Sophann said the Cambodian government was not doing anything wrong by seeking to have its voice heard.

“It’s normal that a government hires a foreign agent to do lobby[ing] on its behalf. Currently, there are many, and Cambodia is one of them,” Sophann said in a message, adding that the firms hired were taking part in age-old American tradition. “The practice of the agent is in accordance with the U.S. legislation,” he said.

THE BATTLE IN CONGRESS

Yet even with Brownstein Hyatt and Ericksen’s reputedly Trump-linked PacRim Bridges lobbying firm behind it, Hun Sen’s government faces an uphill battle in its efforts to prevent the U.S. suspending or withdrawing its GSP preferences.

As the Open Secrets site of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, which broke the news of Wild’s May 23 FARA filing to represent and lobby for Hun Sen’s government, noted in its article on the lobbying last month, the “American opposition to Cambodia’s authoritarian shift is increasingly bipartisan.”

With both sides of the American political aisle finding consensus on the issue of Hun Sen, it may only be a matter of time before the bills before Congress are passed, said John Ciorciari, a Cambodia scholar and the director of the International Policy Center at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.

“These look like serious efforts to apply sanctions. Some in Congress have advocated for a tougher line on Cambodia for some time, and trade access is one of the most substantial U.S. levers available,” Ciorciari said in an email.

“The Trump administration has been willing to crack down selectively on governments it deems both illiberal and unfriendly,” he added, stressing the bills before Congress would be key. “It may be willing to cut Cambodia’s GSP access if pressed by Congress, even though Cambodia is not a White House priority.

“The use of trade sanctions aligns with Trump’s general rhetoric and policy.”

Kem Sokha arrest
Kem Sokha was arrested at his house in Phnom Penh in September 2017.

For Kem Monovithya, a former public affairs deputy director for the banned CNRP who is now based in Washington D.C. and is also the eldest daughter of the detained opposition leader, the support of legislators across the political aisle on the two bills is key.

With Sen. Graham from the Republican Party and Sen. Durbin, a senior Democratic leader who has been whip since 2005, both sponsoring the stronger bill in the Senate and Democrats like Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also co-sponsoring the equivalent in the House, she said the pressure was on Hun Sen.

“I’m certain the latest bill from Senator Graham’s office, which is similar to the Cambodia Democracy Act, will be passed. And it’s not too ambitious to say it could pass this year,” Monovithya said, adding she still hoped the CPP would concede.

“The only way, absolutely the only way, that the CPP government can prevent adverse consequences from the U.S. is to redress democracy and human rights issues in Cambodia, namely the drop of charges against Kem Sokha, open space for democracy to flourish, and respect Cambodia’s sovereignty,” she said.

Jay Rodne, Doug Ericksen, Hun Sen, Hun Manet and Ouch Borith

Monovithya added that Hun Sen’s government had appeared to doubt the E.U.’s seriousness in its threats to rescind EBA tariff-free access before it started its formal review process in February. It would be making the same mistake by believing it could rely on a last-minute $1.2-million cash splash, she said.

“They should not take the risks and carry on as it is. If their advisers are any good, they would tell the CPP government the same thing. If they underestimate what’s happening in the U.S. now, they will be sorely disappointed again.”

While the well-connected and experienced team of campaigners at Brownstein Hyatt could prove formidable in their lobbying against the legislation before the U.S. Congress, Ciorciari of the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy said that ultimately the “lobbyists’ leverage depends partly on their clients.”

“After years of democratic backsliding and a foreign policy oriented toward Beijing, the Cambodian government has few friends on Capitol Hill,” he said. “There is a general sense that U.S. engagement [with Hun Sen’s government] has failed, and the momentum to re-impose sanctions is growing and will not easily be stopped.”

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