The donors referred to their campaign contributions as baked goods, usually “baklava.” They called Hillary Clinton “Our Sister” or “the Big Lady.”
And they referred to their ultimate sponsor by the initials H.H., for His Highness, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, one of the Pentagon’s closest partners in the Middle East and one of the biggest foreign spenders on influence in Washington.
“Will send you a note on the matter as per HH instruction,” George Nader, a trusted emissary for the crown prince, wrote in a text message in late June 2016, describing a million-dollar payment of “baklava,” according to an indictment unsealed by the Justice Department this week.
“I am leaving early morning back to join HH,” Mr. Nader wrote in another message a few months later to Ahmad Khawaja, a California businessman who was charged with acting as a conduit for Mr. Nader’s illegal contributions. “Have already told him about the Wonderful Event with Our Sister and he was thrilled and want to know all about it in person.”
The indictment accused Mr. Nader of funneling more than $3.5 million in illicit campaign donations through Mr. Khawaja to buy access and influence in Washington — initially with Mrs. Clinton and her Democratic allies during the 2016 campaign, and then with Donald J. Trump after he won the election — to gain “favor” and “potential financial support” from an unnamed foreign government.
A close reading of the 64-page indictment makes clear that the unnamed government is the United Arab Emirates, where Mr. Nader owns a business and advises the crown prince.
At a time of intense debate in Washington over foreign interference in American politics, critics say the scheme outlined in the indictment is one of the most brazen attempts in memory by a foreign power to buy influence during an election. Although lobbyists with foreign clients routinely contribute to campaigns, seldom has a foreign head of state been so personally linked to allegations of evading campaign finance laws.
It is the latest example of an ostensible American ally seeking to shape American policy from the inside, and it is all the more striking because Crown Prince Mohammed, widely known as M.B.Z., is one of the biggest foreign spenders on legal forms of influence — from hiring registered lobbyists to funding think tanks.
“The U.A.E. is emblematic of the foreign influence industry as a whole but they are also exceptionally good at it,” said Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the nonpartisan Center for International Policy. “And this is an example of just how far they are willing to go to get the job done: the leader of an alleged U.S. ally who directly violated U.S. campaign finance laws to funnel money to our politicians — that is crazy to me.”
A representative of the Emirati Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Mr. Nader first caught the attention of prosecutors for his efforts to cultivate ties to the Trump campaign and administration on behalf of Prince Mohammed. After the election, Mr. Nader worked to help a Russian businessman close to President Vladimir V. Putin seek contacts with the Trump team. And shortly before the inauguration, Mr. Nader helped Crown Prince Mohammed arrange a meeting at his resort in the Seychelles for the Russian businessman and Erik Prince, a security contractor and Republican donor with close ties to Mr. Trump’s team.
Mr. Nader gave testimony last year in the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he is in jail in the United States on charges related to the possession of child pornography.
Mr. Nader and his partner, Mr. Khawaja, are both American citizens of Lebanese descent.
Mr. Khawaja, who goes by Andy, is the founder of an online payment processing company, and has twice settled Federal Trade Commission charges that he helped illegal websites launder money — forfeiting $13 million in 2009 and a $15 million Beverly Hills mansion last year.
He is also flamboyant. As his company grew, Mr. Khawaja married a Lithuanian-born model, purchased several luxury vehicles, including a Ferrari, and began turning up with his new wife in photographs from parties at high-end jewelry and clothing stores. In 2014, Mr. Khawaja produced a reality show called “Model Turned Superstar,” featuring extensive footage of young women cavorting with him on a yacht.
Mr. Khawaja had never made a political donation before late 2015, around the time he met Mr. Nader, during a visit to the U.A.E., according to people close to Mr. Nader.
Mr. Khawaja, who is fluent in Arabic, had sent a letter to Crown Prince Mohammed requesting an audience to “present His Highness with our company’s plans to transfer our know-how in the fields of technology, education, and financial services to the United Arab Emirates.”
Although it is unclear if any such audience took place, Mr. Khawaja began holding talks with Mr. Nader about some kind of business venture. Around the same time, Mr. Khawaja also began donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns. He secured access to events with Mrs. Clinton and her top advisers — including a fund-raising dinner at Mr. Khawaja’s home with Bill Clinton in June 2016 — and often brought along Mr. Nader.
Several text messages quoted in the indictment show Mr. Nader reassuring Mr. Khawaja about the delivery of large sums of money to pay for donations.
“Fresh hand made Baklva on the way designed especially for that private event at your house later this month! First tray on the way!” Mr. Nader wrote around July 18, 2016. “Once you taste it and you like the choices more on the way soon.”
“Small baklava arrived. 2.7 pieces arrive this morning,” Mr. Khawaja responded, after his company received a 2.5 million euro wire transfer from Mr. Nader.
In a message about two weeks later, Mr. Nader promised to “press the bakery to prepare me another tray of Baklawa.”
The messages in the indictment also suggest Mr. Nader kept Crown Prince Mohammed informed about the efforts with Mr. Khawaja. “Traveling on Sat morning to catch up with our Big Sister and her husband: I am seeing him on Sunday and her in Tuesday Sir! Would love to see you tomorrow at your convenience. . . for your guidance, instruction and blessing!” Mr. Nader wrote in June 2016 to an Emirati official who appears to be the crown prince.
“Has a terrific meeting with Big Sister H You will be most delighted!” he wrote on another occasion, according to the indictment.
Yet Mr. Nader was working at the same time to build ties to the Trump team, he reported to the Emirati official. “Catching up with key figures in both camps and have been developing a steady, consistent and constructive relationship with both camps!” Mr. Nader wrote in July 2016.
Mr. Khawaja and Mr. Nader attended Mrs. Clinton’s election night party in Manhattan, according to people familiar with the event.
But immediately after Election Day, the indictment charges, both Mr. Nader and Mr. Khawaja pivoted to redirect their illicit support to Mr. Trump, beginning with a $1 million donation for the inauguration.
“I can’t talk I’m with Trump,” Mr. Khawaja wrote in a message to Mr. Nader about a month later, sending a photo of himself with the president-elect at a fund-raising event in Manhattan, according to a person who has seen the messages.
Republicans, in turn, appear to have asked few questions about Mr. Khawaja’s sudden change of affiliation or the source of his funds.
Elliott Broidy, a top Republican fund-raiser, was soon calling on Mr. Khawaja as a major contributor. Mr. Broidy, whose military contracting firm was also seeking big contracts from Crown Prince Mohammed at the time, began working closely with Mr. Nader in 2017 and is now under investigation by federal prosecutors for potentially acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the Emirates.
“Call Andy Khawaja later today (maybe around 5) to remind him we NEED him to wire $250k tomorrow,” a Republican operative texted Mr. Broidy in early 2017, according to a copy of the text obtained by The New York Times. Five days later, Mr. Khawaja and his wife donated a combined $250,000 to the Republican National Committee.
“Guess we know that all money is green at RNC,” Mr. Broidy later texted a Republican Party staff member after learning Mr. Khawaja intended to give even more. “Ask for the max out balance remaining. And make sure M/M Khawaja get invited to the WH Holiday party.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from London, and Kenneth P. Vogel from Washington.