Today, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York indicted three men for illegally influencing the foreign policy positions of a presidential candidate and then, after the election, of the United States government.
They were acting in the interests of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a wealthy country in the Persian Gulf. The candidate was Donald Trump, and one of the three men was his ally Thomas Barrack. Another was Matthew Grimes, a 27-year-old employee who reported to Barrack. The third was UAE citizen Rashid al-Malik Alshahhi, who lived in California until 2018, leaving abruptly after the FBI interviewed him about the case.
The return of Barrack to the news recalls the outsized influence of foreign actors in the previous administration, and how U.S. policy appeared to change to suit their interests. On Twitter, Mark Mazetti of the New York Times wrote: “One of the mysteries of Trump's first six months was why the administration came out of the gate so hot for Saudi and UAE—with Trump traveling to Saudi Arabia and then going along with the Qatar blockade. The Tom Barrack indictment explains a lot.”
A billionaire private equity real-estate investor and longtime ally of Trump, Barrack was a key fundraiser for Trump’s campaign, which he advised between April and November 2016. In June 2018, New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick wrote a profile of Barrack, explaining that he is the son of Lebanese immigrants to Los Angeles and so grew up speaking Arabic, which helped him do business and make contacts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Barrack got to know Trump in the real estate world of the 1980s, and by 2010, he acquired $70 million of Jared Kushner’s debt and retired enough of it to keep Kushner from bankruptcy. When Trump launched his 2016 campaign with anti-Muslim rhetoric, Barrack calmed his Middle East contacts down, assuring them that Trump was simply using hyperbole.
Barrack urged Trump to hire Paul Manafort—fresh from his stint working for a Ukrainian oligarch—and served as chair of Trump’s inaugural committee. Grimes and Barrack proposed to contacts in the UAE that it should use “its vast economic surplus to obtain a level of influence…which the country should rightfully command.” They suggested it should use financial investments to “increase [its] influence with USA and European governments and people.”
A final draft of their proposal explained that “[w]hile the primary purpose of the platform [will be] to achieve outsized financial returns, it will also…garner political credibility for its contributions to the policies of [the recently elected Candidate, hereinafter, the ‘President-Elect’]....We will do so by sourcing, investing, financing, operationally improving, and harvesting assets in those industries which will benefit most from a [President-Elect] Presidency.”
Barrack’s investment firm raised more than $7 billion between 2016 and 2018, 24% of it from either the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
According to today’s charges, once Trump was in office, Barrack continued to lobby for the UAE until April 2018. He allegedly worked with allies in the UAE to draft passages of Trump’s speeches, hone press materials, and prepare talking points to promote UAE interests. Without ever registering as a foreign agent, he worked to change U.S. foreign policy and appoint administration officials to meet a “wish list” produced by UAE officials.
Barrack helped to tie the Trump administration to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, turning the US away from Qatar, an ally that hosts US air bases (although they are now being closed as bases and in the process of becoming housing for our Afghan allies before their US visas come through). From the beginning, the administration worked closely with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who controls $1.3 trillion in sovereign wealth funds and essentially rules the UAE, and with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), whom Prince Mohammed championed.
In May 2017, Trump advisers Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, along with Saudi and UAE leaders, met without the knowledge of then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to talk about blockading Qatar. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt launched a blockade on June 5, 2017, Trump cheered them on, although the State Department took a neutral stand and the Pentagon thanked Qatar for hosting US troops.
Today, prosecutors said that Barrack provided foreign government officials “with sensitive non-public information about developments within the Administration, including information about the positions of multiple senior United States government officials with respect to the Qatari blockade conducted by the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries.”
They say he also "met with and assisted senior leaders of the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], a close ally of the UAE."
In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared an emergency to bypass congressional oversight of an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. After the UAE signed onto the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations with Israel, the U.S. sold them another $23 billion of arms, including 50 F-35 advanced fighter planes.
Barrack and Grimes were arrested this morning in California.
When announcing the arrests, William F. Sweeney, Jr., Assistant Director-in-Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said, “American citizens have a right to know when foreign governments, or their agents, are attempting to exert influence on our government. This is especially important to Americans during a Presidential election year, and the laws on the books were created to protect our nation from such untoward influence. This case is about secret attempts to influence our highest officials.”
Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s National Security Division Mark J. Lesko said, “Through this indictment, we are putting everyone—regardless of their wealth or perceived political power—on notice that the Department of Justice will enforce the prohibition of this sort of undisclosed foreign influence.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis said, “These arrests serve as a warning to those who act at the direction of foreign governments without disclosing their actions, as well as those who seek to mislead investigators about their actions, that they will be brought to justice and face the consequences.”
Prosecutors warned that Barrack was a flight risk because of his wealth, private jet, and “deep and longstanding ties to countries that do not have extradition treaties with the United States”: Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Barrack’s lawyer says that Barrack “has made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset,” possibly indicating a willingness to flip.
A judge has ordered Barrack be held in custody until a bail hearing on Monday.