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Mnuchin tight-lipped on stand for Trump ally charged with conspiracy

The former treasury secretary’s testimony follows that of ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was called earlier this month as a government witness.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Repeatedly leaving questions unanswered on the basis of executive privilege, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took the stand Thursday as a defense witness in the federal prosecution of a former Trump campaign adviser.

Tom Barrack, a longtime ally of former president Donald Trump, is charged with working on behalf of the United Arab Emirates without registering as a foreign agent while Trump was a candidate and president-elect. Barrack, who is also accused of lying to the FBI while under investigation, chaired Trump’s inauguration committee. 

Barrack never held a position with the U.S. government but the jury has heard at his trial that kept in touch with Trump, Mnuchin and other officials like Rex Tillerson, Trump's onetime secretary of state, who was called earlier this month as a government witness. Both Mnuchin and Tillerson testified that they never asked Barrack to pass along information to the UAE. 

“I would never share information out of the government with him or with anybody else that I thought was confidential information,” Mnuchin testified in roughly 30-minute appearance this afternoon. 

Mnuchin said he worked with Barrack, among some 100 businesspeople, during his White House tenure. 

“Like many other people, he would provide me with his advice, which I would listen to and consider,” Mnuchin said. 

On cross-examination, Mnuchin confirmed that Barrack attended his wedding in 2017 and that the two spoke regularly before Barrack’s July 2021 arrest. Barrack pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released pending trial on a $250 million bond package. 

In charging documents, prosecutors say Barrack “took steps to advance the United Arab Emirates' foreign policy interests by attempting to influence United States foreign policy, including United States foreign policy with respect to the State of Qatar.”

That includes allegedly trying to influence Trump’s view on the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis, during which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt blockaded Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism and pushing the Muslim Brotherhood to be classified as a terrorist organization.

Attorneys for Barrack rebut that claim by pointing to their client’s criticism of Trump when he publicly supported the blockade. If Barrack were working for the UAE, it would not have made sense to come out on the side of Qatar since the two countries “deeply distrust each other and have effectively been at war,” attorney Michael Schachter of the firm Willkie Farr said during opening statements.

Mnuchin testified that Barrack told him directly Trump was wrong, since Qatar is an important U.S. ally. 

“He came in with the idea of telling me that he thought the president had made a mistake supporting the blockade, and going through with me his reasoning why he thought the president should prevent the blockade,” Mnuchin said. “His position was clearly in support of Qatar.” 

Whether the United States was directly involved in resolving the Qatari blockade, Mnuchin said, was confidential under executive privilege. Mnuchin would not disclose who was on the national security council at the time of the blockade, apart from Tillerson and then-U.S. national security adviser General H. R. McMaster, whose roles have permanent seats on the council. 

Mnuchin also declined to answer questions about discussions of a proposed 2017 summit at Camp David, which Tillerson testified was Trump’s idea to try to resolve the blockade. 

“I can’t comment on any discussions that were protected by executive privilege within the administration,” Mnuchin said. “Deliberations that are internal to the government are covered by executive privilege, and they would need to be waived by the current administration in order for me to [discuss it].”

Barrack's trial began on Sept. 19 with U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, a George W. Bush appointee, presiding. Prosecutors rested their case Wednesday.

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