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Trumpocracy in the UK: Boris Johnson’s Lobby Group and US ‘Dark Money’

Nafeez Ahmed examines new tax filings in the US which raise more questions about the influence of the Henry Jackson Society on the UK Government

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in December 2019. Photo: PA Images

Trumpocracy in the UKBoris Johnson’s Lobby Group & US ‘Dark Money’

Nafeez Ahmed examines new tax filings in the US which raise more questions about the influence of the Henry Jackson Society on the UK Government

Documents seen by Byline Times suggest that the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) – an influential London think tank with charitable status which has played a key role in shaping Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s foreign policy agenda – is subject to the unaccountable influence of a secretive pro-Donald Trump lobby in the United States through its ‘dark money’ funding sources.

Despite its close ties with right-wing, pro-Trump US figures, groups and platforms such as Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon and Breitbart – including participation in an ‘Alt-Right’ gathering of notorious white nationalists – the HJS received more than £80,000 in funding from the UK Home Office between 2015 to 2017, during a time when the current Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was a director of the group.

It also had a staffer working in the Home Secretary’s office in 2018, and through 2020 played a key role in Johnson’s major policies on Brexit, China, as well as the restructuring of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development. 

In America, ‘dark money’ refers to funds donated legally to politically-active non-profit organisations which are not required by law to disclose their donors. Corporate records reveal that the HJS uses a US-based non-profit vehicle – Henry Jackson Society Inc. – to raise the bulk of its funding, the origins of most of which cannot be identified.

From 2016 to 2018, the HJS raised $1.7 million of this ‘dark money’ from American sources. Among the US directors of the HJS is a wealthy financier employed by a Republican mega-donor who is one of President Trump’s biggest backers. 

Trump and British Conservative Connections

The filings with the US Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS) show that the HJS has been formally incorporated in the US as a tax-exempt charity under the directorship of Joshua Swidler and Liad Meidar, among other directors.

Swidler is a portfolio manager at vulture hedge fund Elliott Management and a long-time regular Republican Party donor. His firm, founded and run by billionaire and top Republican mega-donor Paul Singer, contributed some $1.6 million to Republican candidates (compared to a nominal $258,988 on the Democrats), along with more than $10 million spent overwhelmingly on support for Republican campaigning – this year alone.

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that, in 2016, Elliott Management spent some $28 million on getting the Republicans into power, including donating $3.8 million to Republican candidates. Although he started off as a Trump sceptic, fund founder and CEO Paul Singer donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee immediately after his election and has donated to political action committees and other committees backing Trump since then.

Swidler himself has personally donated to the Republican National Committee, Republican Leadership Committee and the GOP Leading the Way fundraising group, along with several other Republican politicians including Senator Mitt Romney, Senator Roy Blunt, Congressman Michael Grimm and Senator Scott Brown. He also donated money to Senator Dan Coats, who went on to become Trump’s Director of National Intelligence from 2017 to 2019. 

Since 2010, Swidler has given a total of $112,468 to a wide range of Republican candidates and politicians, compared to just $19,900 to Democrats. The latter includes two nominal donations of $2,700 each to the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 election.

Swidler is also a UK Conservative Party donor. The records of the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, show that he donated £13,500 to the Conservatives in August 2015 as the party was gearing up its Brexit campaigning.

Swidler’s fellow HJS director, Liad Meidar, is a long-time Republican donor who has given some $25,500 exclusively to various Republican Party candidates (with the sole exception of $1,000 to Al Gore 20 years ago). The candidate he has supported the most is Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher, a strong supporter of Trump’s policies

Liad’s father, Moshe Meidar, is also a Republican donor who supported Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2019 (who was even more of a Trump supporter than Gallagher), as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Swidler’s late wife, Alisa Swidler (who died in September 2019), was also a major Conservative Party donor and member of the Conservative Party Leaders Group. She met with David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson at various Conservative events and chaired the Conservative Party’s Summer Party in 2016. Her last recorded donation was £87,000 in 2017. Since 2014, she had given a total of £336,686 to the party. 

In March 2016, Alisa Swidler hosted and paid for a dinner in New York organised by the Henry Jackson Society for Michael Gove, who would later become a director and trustee for the HJS from January to June 2017. 

Charitable Fundraising

The HJS is a registered charity in the UK, but its ability to influence the ruling Conservative Party along with its ties to Republican and Conservative Party donors raises questions about its compliance with Charity Commission regulations.

These regulations require charities to remain politically independent and to ensure that they are not used as vehicles for the personal or party political views of its directors or trustees. In 2011, William Shawcross was appointed a director and trustee at the HJS. Between 2012 and 2018, he served as chairman of the Charity Commission.

While most of the HJS’ funding is also unknown, other IRS records analysed by Byline Times reveal that it is directly funded by some of the American far-right’s major sponsors in philanthropy. 

IRS filings from 2015 reveal that the HJS received $50,000 from the Emerson Family Foundation in Los Angeles. The same foundation gave $100,000 that year to Turning Point USA, a conservative group on university campuses, and $10,000 to the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) run by Steven Emerson, the Fox News ‘terror expert’. IPT also received $10,000 from the foundation in 2013. Steven Emerson – who has no relation to the people who run the Emerson Family Foundation – is described as a leading “Islamophobia misinformation expert” by the Washington DC think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP).

In 2016, the Emerson Family Foundation also gave $10,000 to the Clarion Project and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, both of which have been identified as key players in the American Islamophobia network by CAP. Clarion has produced several “anti-Muslim films”. Frank Gaffney sits on its advisory board, the man who inspired Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’, as well as Daniel Pipes, Walid Phares and Walid Shoebat who have been accused of anti-Muslim bigotry.

The David Horowitz Freedom Center – which received $65,000 from the foundation in 2014, $35,000 in 2013, and $5,000 in 2012 – regularly hosts white nationalists at its Restoration Weekend annual conference and is described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements”.

As reported in previous parts of this investigation, the HJS’ Dr Alan Mendoza and Douglas Murray spoke at the Horowitz Freedom’s Restoration Weekend in 2017, along with far-right figures such as Milos Yiannopolous, Katie Hopkins, Gavin McInnes and Sebastian Gorka. 

Murray told conference attendees that too much ethnic “diversity” meant that Europe was in danger of becoming “a larger version of Mogadishu” and particularly singled out Indian and Sudanese people. Though they might bring “a wider range of cuisines” through their immigration to Europe, Murray argued, this could be offset with “more gang-rape and beheading”.

In 2014, the Emerson foundation donated $5,000 to the Gatestone Institute which has promoted the ‘white genocide’ theory. In 2013, the Middle East Forum, run by Daniel Pipes and accused of promoting racist material by the Australian Jewish Council, also received $10,000 from the Emerson Foundation.

The most recent packet of funding to the HJS from the Emerson Family Foundation came in 2018, the last year available for public IRS filings, suggests that the HJS continues to receive dark money from pro-Trump right-wing conservative groups.

In 2018, for instance, the HJS received $25,000 from the Myron Zimmerman Foundation, which that year also gave $164,000 to Turning Point USA, and $80,000 to the David Horowitz Freedom Center, for “education”. They are both organisations which the foundation has regularly supported over the years. The same foundation also supports the Gatestone Institute, Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, and Pipes’ Middle East Forum, each of which received $25,000 that year.

Similarly, in 2017, the HJS received $2,500 from the Jack Roth Charitable Foundation which also funded Turning Point USA, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Gatestone, to the tune of $320,000, $30,000 and $20,000 the following year. The Foundation is a major Horowitz sponsor, granting his group $200,000 in 2014. 

The new financial records examined by Byline Times reinforce the suspicion that the Henry Jackson Society operates as part of a wider transnational network of hardline right-wing American organisations which had an important influence on the White House. Through the HJS, these networks have had direct influence on successive British Conservative-led governments, including the current administration under Boris Johnson. 

As recently as this Spring, the HJS hosted a diplomatic meeting between Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Boris Johnson and the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Given the HJS’ impact on Johnson’s approach to foreign affairs and Brexit in particular and its connection to the circuits of US ‘dark money’, the British people have reason to wonder how much of their Government’s policies have been shaped, not by them or Whitehall, but the dark money circuits that have also shaped the presidency of Donald Trump.

Byline Times contacted the Henry Jackson Society, Douglas Murray, Dr Alan Mendoza and Downing Street for comment but received no responses.

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