NEW YORK – A close ally of Donald Trump used his access to the former Republican president to secretly help the United Arab Emirates try to gain influence over American foreign policy in a scheme about “power and money,” a prosecutor said Wednesday at a federal trial.
A lawyer for Tom Barrack countered that his client has a spotless record of only pursuing legitimate business and political interests.
The exchange came during opening statements in the case against Barrack, a longtime friend of Trump and California billionaire who chaired Trump’s inaugural committee in 2017. Barrack has pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
A prosecutor told the New York City jury that under the direction of UAE leaders, Barrack provided them with sensitive inside information about the Trump campaign and administration. At the same time, the energy-rich U.S. ally poured millions of dollars into business ventures operated by Barrack and his co-defendants, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta.
“When Donald Trump ran for president, the defendants saw an opportunity — an opportunity to use Barrack’s unique access to gain power and money for themselves,” Mehta said.
Barrack, he added, considered himself the “eyes, ears and voice" of the UAE, which at one point asked him to find out who Trump was considering for secretary of state and other key Cabinet positions.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Steven Schachter insisted there was no evidence that Barrack ever took orders from the UAE or betrayed his country by becoming a covert agent.
“Tom Barrack is his own man,” he said. “Everything that Tom did, you’re going to see that he did as his own man, making his own decisions.”
A lawyer for Matthew Grimes, a co-defendant of Barrack who’s on trial with him, said Wednesday in his opening statement that Grimes was a lackey at Barrack’s firm who was never in a position to be a foreign agent.
The government’s first witness was an expert on Middle East affairs who is expected to continue testifying on Thursday.
Barrack, 75, was arrested last year and released on $250 million bail.
Before being indicted, Barrack drew attention by raising $107 million for the former president’s inaugural celebration following the 2016 election. The event was scrutinized both for its lavish spending and for attracting foreign officials and businesspeople looking to lobby the new administration.
The Los Angeles-based private equity manager was a key figure in UAE investments in a tech fund and real estate totaling $374 million. Prosecutors say that while he was nurturing those business deals, he convinced Trump to take meeting and phone calls with UAE leaders.
Other efforts included drafting a campaign speech for Trump that praised a member of the country’s royal family, passing information back to the Emiratis about how senior U.S. officials felt about a boycott of Qatar, and promising to advance the interests of the UAE if he were appointed as an ambassador or envoy to the Middle East.
Such an appointment “would give ABU DHABI more power!” Barrack wrote in one message obtained by federal prosecutors, referring to the capital of UAE, which commands tens of billions of dollars in wealth funds from its oil and gas deposits.
The U.S. government is seeking to present evidence at trial that Barrack was in close communication with the UAE’s director of national intelligence, Ali al-Shamsi.
“Al Shamsi was one of the most important UAE government officials that the defendants communicated with as part of the charged scheme, particularly given his senior role in UAE intelligence operations, and testimony regarding his role and responsibilities is central to this case,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.