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Trump confidant Thomas Barrack faces trial for allegedly acting as foreign agent

Trump ally arrested and accused of illegal lobbying
Trump ally arrested and accused of illegal lobbying 01:47

Jury selection is set to begin Monday in the criminal trial of Thomas Barrack, a billionaire investor and close friend of former President Donald Trump, who is accused of unlawfully lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of the United Arab Emirates.

Federal prosecutors say Barrack, who served as a Trump campaign adviser and chair of Trump's inaugural committee, tried to leverage his influence to advance the UAE's interests. Barrack has been out on $250 million bond since soon after his July 2021 arrest, when he was charged with acting as an undisclosed foreign agent for the UAE, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI about his dealings.

Both Barrack and an employee, Matthew Grimes, entered not guilty pleas to the charges. A third suspect, Rashid Al Malik, has not been located by law enforcement.

Prosecutors said in Barrack's indictment that he used his close friendship and insider access to try to sway Trump's foreign policy positions during the 2016 presidential campaign and in the early years of the Trump administration.

Speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Barrack described Trump as "one of my closest friends for 40 years." After the 2016 election, he was a frequent visitor to the Trump White House, often offering the president advice on Middle East affairs. 

Tom Barrack speaks at the 2016 Republican National Convention
Thomas J. Barrack, a billionaire investor and close friend and adviser to Donald Trump, delivers a speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Barrack is accused of trying to fulfill a UAE "wish list" of U.S. foreign policy positions in the first two years of the Trump administration. The indictment cites text messages and emails in which Al Malik, an Emirati citizen then living in California, allegedly texted Barrack proposed language for a speech sent by a UAE official. In another exchange, prosecutors said Barrack emailed Al Malik about a TV interview he had done. 

"I nailed it…for the home team," Barrack allegedly wrote. Prosecutors say "the home team" referred to the UAE.

The charge of working as an undisclosed foreign agent has for decades been used in cases involving espionage, said attorney Antonia Apps, a former federal prosecutor.

"What's interesting about the Barrack case is that it seems that it's much closer to conduct that looks more like lobbying on behalf of a client, the United Arab Emirates," said Apps, a partner at the Milbank law firm. "Lobbying Donald Trump by using your connections."

Apps said the Barrack case is indicative of a shift in Justice Department behavior with regard to the foreign agent law.

"It's pretty much the second time the government has focused on conduct that resembles lobbying on behalf of a foreign government," Apps said, citing the case of Bijan Rafiekian, who was accused of acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey during Trump's 2016 campaign. Rafiekian's 2019 conviction was vacated by the trial judge, and a new trial was ordered. 

In another recent case involving the law, Russian Maria Butina pleaded guilty in 2018 to being an unregistered foreign agent. Prosecutors said she was a "covert Russian agent" who infiltrated several prominent Republican-aligned groups and "the US national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation."

In the Barrack case, prosecutors said Al Malik attended the 2016 presidential inauguration as Barrack's guest. Soon after, prosecutors say Grimes, who was an executive at Barrack's company, texted Al Malik that they could "take credit" for setting up a phone call between the new president and a senior UAE official. 

Barrack is accused of lying to FBI agents multiple times during a voluntary interview in June 2019,  including about efforts to connect two UAE officials with Trump after the 2016 election. 

At the time, Barrack was the executive chairman of Colony Capital, now known as Digital Bridge, an investment firm he founded in 1991. Barrack's lawyers have said his communications with UAE officials were related to his company, and that Trump and the U.S. State Department were aware of his international business relationships.

His attorneys have said he never signed an agreement to represent the UAE's interests in the U.S. Prosecutors wrote in a June filing that a formal contract is not needed to be an agent of a foreign country.

Barrack's trial comes as others in Trump's orbit, and Trump himself, are facing intense legal scrutiny. The Trump Organization is facing a criminal trial on fraud and tax evasion charges in New York, scheduled to begin on Oct. 24. The company's longtime former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, entered a guilty plea in the case on Aug. 18, admitting his role in an alleged scheme to provide executives with untaxed perks.

The judge presiding over that case is also overseeing state criminal proceedings against another Trump ally, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who entered not guilty pleas Sept. 8 to charges of money laundering, conspiracy and a scheme to defraud. Bannon was also recently convicted of contempt of Congress, for refusing to cooperate with a House investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol. 

A federal grand jury investigating that attack has issued more than 40 subpoenas to Trump associates and supporters, expanding the probe to look at fundraising through Save America, a political action committee aligned with Trump. A separate federal investigation is focused on Trump's handling of documents — some labeled Top Secret — that were recovered in an FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. The former president's conduct after losing the 2020 election is also the focus of a special grand jury in Georgia that has heard from dozens of witnesses since June.

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