In the summer of 2016, Thomas Barrack stopped to appreciate his latest national television appearance as an informal advisor to the Trump campaign.
“I nailed it … for the home team,” Barrack wrote in a July 2016 text.
But in a court filing, federal prosecutors said Barrack was not referencing Trump’s campaign or the United States. The “home team” was instead the United Arab Emirates, prosecutors said, in an indictment charging Barrack — a wealthy businessman who served as chair of Trump’s presidential inaugural committee — with illegally acting as a foreign agent to push US officials on policies favoring the Gulf nation.
On Monday, jury selection began in Barrack’s trial, where he stands charged not only with acting as an unregistered foreign agent acting on orders of foreign rulers but also with obstructing justice and lying to the FBI. The trial is expected to last about a month and could shed additional light on how advisers in Trump’s orbit secretly lobbied his campaign and administration on behalf of foreign countries.
Indeed, Barrack is only the latest Trump ally to face charges in connection with an alleged foreign influence campaign. In October 2020, the prominent Republican fundraiser Elliot Broidy pleaded guilty to conspiring to influence the administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests. Trump’s onetime national security advisor Michael Flynn had previously admitted to making “material false statements and omissions” in foreign-agent filings related to his advocacy for Turkey. (Flynn was not charged in connection with Turkey but made the admission as he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with the Russian ambassador to the US before Trump’s inauguration.)
Broidy and Flynn both received pardons from Trump.
Barrack is standing trial alongside his former assistant, Matthew Grimes, who was charged only with participating in the lobbying scheme. An Emirati businessman, Rashid al-Malik, was also charged, but he left the United States just days after federal agents interviewed him. He remains at large.
In court papers, federal prosecutors alleged that Barrack agreed in the spring of 2016 to develop a backchannel between the Emiratis and Trump campaign. As part of the arrangement, Barrack also agreed to influence and obtain information about the campaign’s foreign policy positions, according to the indictment, which quotes extensively from text and email correspondence.
Before long, Barrack sent al-Malik a copy of a speech he’d drafted for Trump, in which he praised an Emirati ruler who was the crown prince of Abu Dhabi at the time.
“They loved it so much! This is great!” Al-Malik replied, according to the indictment.
As the draft went through edits, Barrack then worked with Trump campaign officials to ensure that the remarks included a positive reference to Persian Gulf allies. After Trump delivered the speech, an Emirati official emailed Barrack to congratulate him “on the great job today” and to say “everybody here are happy with the results.”
Barrack also praised the United Arab Emirates in television interviews, with al-Malik passing along talking points from Emirati officials, according to the indictment.
Following Trump’s election, Barrack communicated with senior Emirati officials about the transition and likely candidates for key posts. In December 2016, al-Malik drafted a “wish list” of US foreign policy positions that would benefit the United Arab Emirates. A month later, in January 2017, al-Malik urged Grimes to push the Trump administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization — a longtime goal of the Emiratis.
“Yes. At your direction,” Grimes answered. Weeks later, Grimes followed up with a news article reporting that the US government was considering that move.
A new test
For the Justice Department, Barrack’s monthlong trial marks just the latest test of its recent crackdown on covert foreign influence.
After decades of light enforcement, the Justice Department in recent years has brought multiple prosecutions under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, a law designed to shine a light on Nazi propaganda. The 1938 law requires lobbyists and other consultants to register with the Justice Department and disclose their political activities for foreign countries and other overseas powers.
In 2018, Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, pleaded guilty to FARA-related charges in connection with his past work for the Russia-backed government in Ukraine. The case went down as a high-profile opening salvo in the Justice Department’s renewed scrutiny of foreign influence, but Trump pardoned Manafort in the waning weeks of his presidency.
Barrack was not charged with violating FARA but rather a lesser-known statute used in cases involving evidence of someone acting at the direction of a foreign government official. The law, described as “espionage lite” within the Justice Department’s national security division, has a maximum sentence of 10 years — twice that of FARA.
Former prosecutors said a conviction in Barrack’s case could send a message and sharpen the lines between illegal influence peddling and the lawful use of Washington connections to represent the viewpoints of foreign governments.
Ahead of trial, lawyers for Barrack and Grimes have argued that the Justice Department has overstretched a statute usually reserved for spies and criminalized free speech. And they have disputed that Barrack and Grimes ever entered into an agreement with the United Arab Emirates.
“Mr. Barrack was never an agent of the UAE, nor did he commit obstruction or make any false statements. There is no basis whatsoever for the charges against Mr. Barrack,” his lawyers wrote in a court filing.
Through his lawyers, Barrack has also argued that his contacts with Emiratis were no secret to the Trump campaign and the former president’s administration. Barrack has also raised questions about prosecutors waiting two years — and until after Trump left office — to charge him, arguing “the government intentionally delayed bringing this case for political reasons or tactical advantage.”
Prosecutors are expected to highlight evidence that Barrack stood to profit from his advocacy. Between April 2016 and 2018, they said, he was seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in investments from Emirati sovereign wealth funds.
In 2017 and 2018, Barrack’s investment firm, Colony Capital Inc., raised about $374 million in capital commitments from the United Arab Emirates sovereign wealth funds — “in part as a result of the efforts” of Barrack, Grimes and al-Malik, prosecutors said.
“Of course, it’s not just Barrack who will be on trial. It’s the practices of the Trump years, Trump’s cronies trading on their proximity and access to the president and those around him,” said Norm Eisen, who served as counsel for House Democrats in Trump’s first impeachment, in an interview earlier this year.
“Barrack was just following the model of monetizing the presidency that Trump established.”