Opinion

One Of Trump’s Religious Freedom Commissioners Spent 9/11 In Saudi Arabia — But Not ‘Officially’

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Rudy Takala Contributor

One of President Trump’s appointees on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has taken a special interest in visiting Saudi Arabia while telling Americans that the kingdom is an epicenter of progress and tolerance. But he isn’t necessarily doing so “officially.”

Johnnie Moore, who founded The KAIROS Company, a public relations consultancy, joined the commission as one of President Trump’s three appointees in 2018. The 36-year-old has been especially enthusiastic about using his position to praise Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, or MBS. The prince is mostly known for allegedly ordering Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder and dismemberment in a consulate in Turkey.

Moore even spent the last anniversary of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks in Saudi Arabia, meeting with MBS. Lathering praise on what he called the “remarkable” prince in a Sept. 19 column, Moore said, MBS was “passionate about his vision” and “in total command of the subjects about which he speaks.”

“He answered every question we asked,” Moore wrote, and even often “answered questions before we asked them.”

Moore said he was awe-struck by the prince’s wisdom and accomplishments. “It has become increasingly apparent to us exactly why he is a leader of such global consequence and why he is here to stay.”

He even enjoyed a beautiful sunset, explaining that it cast a “divine hew over al-Ula, Saudi Arabia’s hidden archeological jewel.”

Making it more peculiar, the commission said the trip was not officially sanctioned — meaning it had no obligation to record his visit.

“Johnnie Moore went to Saudi Arabia in his capacity as a private citizen, neither representing nor funded by USCIRF,” said a spokesperson for the commission. “If he had traveled as a representative of USCIRF or had been supported in any way by the commission, he would have been subject to very strict reporting requirements.”

In theory, that means Moore could legally accept financial compensation — from the Saudi government, or an organ closely related to it — related to the trip without reporting it. Sponsored trips abroad are far from unusual. Nongovernmental organizations, nonprofit groups and others regularly sponsor trips for certain individuals — such as business leaders and journalists — to visit, particularly in the Middle East.

A source close to Moore insisted financial incentives had nothing to do with his work. “Johnnie is deeply passionate about promoting religious freedom around the world. He donates about a quarter of his time to these types of initiatives, funds his own travel and funds all his varied types of religious freedom advocacy.”

While Moore considered the trip a personal one, the Saudis paid to ensure Americans knew he enjoyed the visit. In compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Qorvis Communications, an American public-relations firm, disclosed it had circulated a press release from the Muslim World League promoting the trip.

Both have Saudi connections. The Muslim World League, an NGO headquartered in Mecca, aims to improve the kingdom’s image across the globe. Qorvis, a Virginia-based firm, regularly performs work for the Saudi government. In 2004, the FBI raided the company’s offices over allegations that Qorvis failed to disclose payments for a radio-ad campaign conducted on behalf of the Saudi government. Charges were never filed.

It also does not appear to be the first time a foreign interest has invested in promoting Moore’s advocacy in the Mideast. After Moore published a February column critical of Iran, numerous Twitter accounts linked to the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) promoted the piece using identical language: “Iran’s leaders hate the West and the freedoms that Americans and the citizens of other democracies enjoy … an excellent read by Reverend Johnnie Moore.”

Saudi Arabia faults Iran, its perennial adversary, for a September missile attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities.

Moore isn’t the first to travel abroad and come back with glowing stories. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made headlines in 2018 for a tweet in which he praised “surprisingly beautiful, modern, and hospitable Doha, Qatar,” without disclosing that a New York man paid one of his companies $50,000 for making a trip to the country.

The source close to Moore said his only motive was promoting tolerance in the region. “He has not received a dime from Saudi Arabia, the MWL or any other country. What he has received is criticism for being willing to dialogue with the Islamic world in difficult places at difficult times in the hope of combating religious persecution and eventually advancing religious freedom in the Islamic World.”