Businessmen close to Donald Trump may be profiting from the president's travels around the world.
According to Politico, security contractor Steve Atkiss could have furthered his own interests while planning Trump's summits with foreign leaders. In May 2017, he went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to make logistical preparations for the president's attendance at a 55-nation conference in the city. There was a possible conflict of interest because the businessman was a partner in the Command Group, which had contracted with a U.S. firm to do business in Saudi Arabia.
One of Command's founders, Joe Hagin, is a long-time Republican Party strategist whom Trump hired as a deputy chief of staff. Hagin, who oversaw plans for presidential trips to Saudi Arabia and four other countries, enlisted Atkiss as a volunteer to do advance work not only for the summit in Riyadh but also for Trump's recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
Atkiss is a recognized expert in planning international trips, having performed such duties for the George W. Bush administration. By making contacts with foreign officials and businesses, he has had opportunities to strike lucrative deals benefitting Command's security and consulting services. “Any way you look at it, it looks bad,” said Marilyn Glynn, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics under Bush. “If it were me, I would advise against it.”
This is not the first time Atkiss has been a subject of controversy. He was accused of sexually harassing a female Bush aide, and of physically assaulting a male staffer. The incidents did not stop Hagin from continuing to promote his friend's career.
“Hagin picked Steve Atkiss for two of the most important trips that the White House has done in decades,” a former Bush aide noted. “Because Steve is there wearing two hats — his company hat and his White House hat — it’s like a jobs fair for their company, and a potential gold mine that no amount of money could buy.”
Another confidential source from the Bush White House added: “That Steve Atkiss is there representing the president when his companies have contracts in Saudi Arabia and the region is outrageous. There is no being off the clock when you are on these trips, and you can’t serve two masters.”
Former Bush official Taylor Griffin rose to the businessmen's defense. “I’m critical about a lot of people in this administration and their lack of a moral compass, but Joe is not one of those people. I would be very surprised if there were anything untoward here. It doesn’t surprise me that Joe would bring in people like Steve because they know what they’re doing, and this White House doesn’t have a lot of people that have a lot of experience doing this kind of thing.”
However, John Cohen, who held high-ranking Homeland Security and law-enforcement positions under Bush and President Obama, warned that “by even creating the appearance of a conflict of interest, you open the door to undermining the credibility of, and confidence in, the government.” He continued: “The lead advance person will have access to a broad array of highly sensitive and even classified information, so from a security perspective you are going to want to make sure that the targeting of those people by foreign intel services cannot be aided by the fact that they have their own financial interests in mind.”
The Command Group and the Trump administration have refuted claims of wrongdoing. The White House pointed out that the president needs people with security clearances who are experienced in coordinating summits.
“Whether it was the Bush or Trump administration, Steve was selected by each advance director to lead these trips for the same reason – he’s one of the best and most experienced leaders in the world when it comes to planning and executing the most complex and challenging presidential engagements overseas,” former Bush operative Spencer Geissinger said. “Any suggestion that Steve’s selection for these highly visible and critical trips has been for anything other than his abilities and experience is laughable.”
For years, presidents have used volunteers to plan foreign trips. The White House reportedly has a list of about 250 people with such expertise. Officials claim they conducted a vetting process before approving Atkiss for any assignments.
“Consistent with previous administrations, the White House follows standard protocols for screening volunteer personnel for conflicts of interest, security and a number of other potential issues,” Trump spokesman Raj Shah explained. “Steve Atkiss was screened in early 2017 and raised no concerns.”
Hagin plans to resign from his White House position next month. He has not revealed whether he will go back to Command, where he has not worked since January 2017. It is likely that he will remain active in Republican circles, having served the party since the days of Ronald Reagan.