On Jan. 19, just a day before President Donald Trump's inauguration, a businessman named R. W. Habboush gave two donations to Trump's inauguration committee. One donation came in at $166,000 and a second at $500,000 — amounting to a whopping $666,000.
Two and a half weeks later, as detailed in an exclusive Mic report, Habboush's son Wadie found himself in a pair of high-level meetings at the White House. Wadie Habboush met with with National Security Council officials and Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon. The subject at hand was how to open up business with Venezuela, which is heavily sanctioned by the United States.
The senior Habboush's donations to Trump's inauguration committee were first reported by Rachel Maddow on Thursday's episode of her MSNBC show. Maddow pointed out that, according to Federal Election Commission filings, Trump raised $107 million — a record sum — for his inauguration festivities.
"What were the donors donating to?" Maddow asked. "What were they expecting to get for their money?"
"Well, a couple weeks ago, a reporter named Jake Horowitz posted a story at Mic.com about at least one thing that appears to have come out of that money," Maddow said. She went on to cite the meetings between Wadie Habboush and National Security Council officials reported by Mic.
"In a normal administration, the National Security Council doesn't get used for stuff like this," Maddow added. "National Security Council officials do not have to meet with half-million dollars donors to hear their ideas on sanctions for some other country."
Wadie Habboush, who along with his father R. W. runs the Habboush Group, an energy investment and consulting firm, met on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 with top White House officials, including Bannon. Wadie Habboush and another businessman named Gentry Beach arranged the meetings with the aim of lifting U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, which could pave the way for opportunities in the country for U.S. businesses. Beach has close ties to Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr.
That the meetings took place at all — even before the revelations about R. W. Habboush's donations to Trump's inauguration committee — raised alarms among ethics lawyers and former officials on both sides of the aisle.
"If this account is true, it raises serious questions about the conduct of foreign policy by the Trump administration," Mark Feierstein, who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, told Mic in early April. "Those meetings never should have taken place at any level, let alone with senior officials in the West Wing."
Venezuela's state-run oil company, as Maddow noted on Thursday, donated $500,000 of its own to Trump's inauguration, highlighting how a country in political turmoil may be spending money it doesn't have potentially to curry favor with Trump.