A new scandal has erupted involving US Senator John McCain of Arizona — his nonprofit organization, the McCain Institute for International Leadership, received a $1 million donation from the repressive government of Saudi Arabia in 2014. The news is likely to impact his closely contested US Senate race against Arizona Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, a race that pollsters say is within the margin of error.
US federal law strictly bans foreign contributions to electoral campaigns, but the restriction does not apply to nonprofits engaged in policy even those organizations bearing the name of a sitting lawmaker. Although likely not a technical violation of the law, McCain’s foundation is interconnected with his reelection campaign, the candidate’s fundraiser is listed as the contact person for the foundation.
Campaign ethics organizations argue that this contribution is merely an end around allowing the Saudi government to make a large contribution in hopes of influencing policy.
"Foreign governments are prohibited from financing candidate campaigns and political parties," Craig Holman of the watchdog organization Public Citizen, said. "Funding the lawmakers’ nonprofit organizations is the next best thing."
Is This Truly a Scandal or is this Politics as Usual in Washington?
The connection of John McCain’s foundation to the repressive House of Saud is not really atypical for foundations in the name of well-established politicians. The Clinton Foundation, for instance, includes among its top donors several foreign governments including Saudi Arabia.
The Clinton Foundation, founded in 1998, has accepted tens of millions from foreign governments in recent years, including while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State to President Barack Obama. The Clinton Foundation challenges that Hillary was not involved in the organization’s work when she served with the Obama administration and that the massive amounts of Saudi contributions had no bearing on US foreign policy towards Riyadh.
The contribution to McCain’s foundation does, however, set a new precedent as the first time that a foreign government has contributed to the foundation of a sitting US elected official.
More concerning is that the McCain Institute for International Leadership did not originally disclose the 2014 donation from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia and only updated the website following an inquiry from Bloomberg News.
Some now question whether the timing of the donation impacted John McCain’s posturing towards the Obama administration’s growing coldness towards the Saudi regime. The donation came while President Obama negotiated with Iran, a regional adversary of the Saudis, which Riyadh staunchly opposed. John McCain sided with Tea Party legislators, who McCain is typically critical of, in blasting the President’s move towards diplomacy.