Thomas Barrack, the 74-year-old billionaire and chairman of former President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, was released from custody in late July after posting a whopping US$250 million bond to guarantee he appears before a federal court to face charges of acting as an agent of a foreign power—namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In ordinary times, the indictment and arrest of a former White House advisor on foreign espionage charges would be the top news story of the day, taking its place among the most sordid of White House scandals, including Watergate, Russiagate, and President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But during yet another surging wave of coronavirus infections and deaths, the prosecution of Barrack has barely raised an eyebrow, particularly because it’s tied to a US administration awash in indictments and imprisonments stemming from corruption, conspiracy, and espionage. Indeed, it should be remembered that retired General Michael Flynn and former Trump advisors Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos each saw prison time for lying to federal investigators about their ties to foreign governments.
The arrest and prosecution of Barrack promises to pull back the curtain on the shadowy corners of the DC Beltway.
Nevertheless, the arrest and prosecution of Barrack matters because it promises to pull back the curtain on the shadowy corners of the DC Beltway, where the Emirati government advances its strategic interests. The American public should be as interested in the hold certain Arab Gulf nations had over the Trump administration as much as they were transfixed by evidence of Russian influence operations that were both covert and illegal.
As Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, put to special consul Robert Mueller before Congress in 2019, during the hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election: “We did not bother to ask whether financial inducements from any Gulf nations were influencing US policy, since it is outside the four corners of your report, and so we must find out.”
The trial of Barrack is where we find out.
For now, Barrack is banned from leaving the US, subjected to an overnight curfew, and being tracked with a GPS location monitoring device, while authorities seek the arrest and extradition of one of his co-conspirators, Rashid al-Malik, an Emirati national, who fled the US three days after being questioned by the FBI.
The two men, along with Matthew Grimes, a US citizen, are charged with capitalizing on Barrack’s status as a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, to “advance the interests of and provide intelligence to the UAE while simultaneously failing to notify the Attorney General that their actions were taken at the direction of senior UAE officials.”
While the indictment is vague about how Barrack was remunerated for his efforts, it does reference communications discussing various investment opportunities, and we do know from federal tax disclosures that his private investment firm, Colony Capital, received approximately US$1.5 billion from UAE and Saudi sources, according to CNBC.
The indictment makes it clear that Barrack covertly pushed and advocated the interests of the UAE within the White House.
The indictment makes it clear that Barrack covertly pushed and advocated the interests of the UAE within the White House and the news media, while acting as an undisclosed paid agent of the UAE government.
He is further charged with “influencing public opinion, the foreign policy positions of the [Trump] Campaign and the foreign policy positions of the United States government; obtaining information about foreign policy positions and related decision-making within the Campaign, and, at times, the United States government; developing a backchannel line of communication with the Campaign and, at times, officials of the United States government; and developing plans to increase the United Arab Emirates’ political influence and to promote its foreign policy preferences.”
What we also know is Trump was the most pro-UAE and pro-Saudi President to ever occupy the Oval Office, as five of his ten presidential vetoes were related to issues of concern to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as observed by the New York Times. Moreover, it is important not to forget that he overruled Congress’ attempt to end US military involvement in the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen and shielded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from sanctions for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The exact role Barrack had in influencing these measures and actions remains unclear, but what’s certain is his defense attorneys have their “work cut out for them, given the breadth and specificity of the evidence,” according to Christina Wilkie, a columnist for CNBC. Wilkie rightly notes that federal prosecutors appear to have carefully tailored the timeline of charges in order to constrain or limit attempts to claim the conversations Barrack had with the White House contain classified material.
“It’s absolutely possible that the defense will threaten to expose classified information in order to prove [Barrack] wasn’t acting without anyone’s knowledge.”
“It’s absolutely possible that the defense will threaten to expose classified information in order to prove [Barrack] wasn’t acting without anyone’s knowledge,” a former top national security official told CNBC.
It appears, however, that prosecutors set up a roadblock to this likely or possible route for Barrack’s attorneys, in keeping alleged crimes within a specific and narrow time frame, spanning April 2016 to October 2017—a period in which Barrack is unlikely to have had access to classified material.
“The prosecutors may not be able to prove espionage, which has a very high bar,” said Brett Kappel, a Washington, DC-based attorney and expert in lobbying and influence laws, in a recent interview. “But they can prove this person was operating under the direction of a foreign government and did not inform US authorities that they were in this role.”
Barrack is currently at his home in Aspen, Colorado, awaiting trial. While his legal team makes every effort to avoid his conviction, it is important for the American public to follow this case and recognize the considerable influence wealthy monarchies like the UAE can have over the US government.