Biden Taps Qatar Shill To Lead Effort To Counter Foreign Propaganda

James Rubin also lobbied for Zimbabwe and a Turkish state bank linked to Iran

Biden official James Rubin with his ex-wife, Christiane Amanpour. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
December 19, 2022

The State Department's Global Engagement Center is charged with understanding and countering propaganda from America's adversaries. So a man who has shilled for Qatar, Zimbabwe, and a Turkish state bank linked to Iran may be an awkward fit as its leader.

As a partner at the firm Ballard Partners, James Rubin until 2020 lobbied State Department and White House officials on behalf of Qatar, the oil-rich Gulf nation that funds terrorist groups and is allied with Iran, according to disclosures filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Rubin, who served in the State Department under President Bill Clinton, also represented Halkbank, a Turkish state bank indicted in a gold-for-oil scheme with Iran. He shilled for the government of Zimbabwe in its effort to alleviate sanctions over the "unusual and extraordinary threat" the regime poses to the United States.

Biden on Friday appointed Rubin to serve as special envoy and coordinator of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, formed to identify and expose foreign propaganda "that threatens the security of the United States, our allies, and partners." According to the State Department, Rubin will focus on countering foreign disinformation and propaganda with a focus on Russia, China, Iran, and terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.

Rubin’s work for the controversial regimes is likely to raise questions about the revolving door between the Biden White House and lobbying firms. As a candidate in 2020, Biden said he would prohibit foreign governments’ use of lobbyists, saying that "there is no reason why a foreign government should be permitted to lobby Congress or the Executive Branch."

Rubin, the ex-husband of CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour, is the latest in a string of foreign agents hired by the Biden administration. Amos Hochstein, a top White House adviser on international energy issues, represented Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s most repressive regimes. Erin Pelton, who served as special assistant to Biden, lobbied for Qatar prior to joining the administration. George Salem, appointed chairman of a board at USAID this year, represented the Palestine Monetary Authority, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Disclosures filed with the Justice Department show Rubin met frequently with State Department and White House officials on behalf of his foreign clients. He registered as an agent of Qatar in May 2019 as Ballard Partners worked for "the betterment of U.S.-Qatari bilateral relations." The Gulf nation has long funded and provided a safe-haven for ISIS and al Qaeda extremists. Qatar’s foreign minister offered condolences to Iran after a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

Rubin registered as a lobbyist for Halkbank and Zimbabwe in March 2019, according to his foreign agent disclosure.

In 2017, the Department of Justice accused Halkbank of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran by trading gold for Iranian oil and gas. Prosecutors indicted Halkbank executives in 2018 and filed additional charges in 2019 for evading sanctions. During meetings with his lobbying contacts at the State Department and White House, Rubin reportedly suggested the United States go easy on Halkbank because of Turkey’s membership in the NATO alliance.

Rubin met throughout 2019 and 2020 with State Department officials regarding Zimbabwe, led by dictator Emmerson Mnangagwa. In 2003, President George W. Bush sanctioned Zimbabwe over its human rights abuses and violent repression of opposition political parties, journalists, and others. Biden maintained those sanctions last year, saying that the Zimbabwean regime poses "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States."

The White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comment.