BROOKLYN (CN) — Back on the stand at his federal criminal trial, Tom Barrack said Wednesday that when Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric seemed to threaten the Republican Party, he set out to correct the record among his Middle Eastern contacts and ease concerns over Trump’s travel ban on Muslim countries.
Barrack is charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the United Arab Emirates while Trump was a candidate and president-elect. Prosecutors accuse him of ferrying over sensitive information, including the names of Trump’s nominations for director of the CIA, secretary of defense, secretary of state and national security adviser.
The onetime billionaire investor told the jury he had introduced members of the Trump administration to business contacts in several Middle Eastern countries but was never subject to direction from UAE leaders.
Barrack had served as an informal campaign adviser to President Trump, a longtime friend of his, and chaired Trump’s inaugural committee. The 75-year-old California native has been testifying since Monday to defend himself against seven counts that include illegal lobbying and lying to the FBI while under investigation.
Part of his role, as Barrack saw it, was to do damage control around Trump’s inflammatory foreign policy ideas, including the Muslim ban and plan to build a wall at the border of Mexico and the United States.
“The Republican party had taken on the racist tone that came with the Muslim ban … China, South Korea, all those things,” Barrack testified.
That was the reason Barrack forwarded the party’s platform, which he received from Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, to Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the United States, Barrack testified.
“To have the Republican Party not viewed as a racist party was important,” said Barrack, who is the grandchild of Lebanese immigrants and says his background put him in a unique position to liaise between Trump and Middle Eastern officials.
Barrack wanted to make it clear to Otaiba and other leaders that “the Republican Party is not gunning for any of you,” he said.
At Manafort’s direction, Barrack also sought input from Middle Eastern leaders for a speech in 2016 on American energy policy that Barrack helped draft for Trump, he testified.
Barrack referred to the speech as “imbecilic,” according to emails shown in court. Barrack claimed that was a reference to Trump’s combative rhetoric.
“I’m addressing the fact that he’s incinerating environmentalists here. We're at the very beginning of the campaign. He’s attacking regulations, he’s attacking EPA” — plus activists, his Democratic presidential opponent Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
“I’m not saying anything candidate Trump said was imbecilic,” Barrack said. “I’m saying, from my humble point of view, attacking Hilary Clinton, who was one of the best secretaries of state … it’s not going to be accepted well.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta offered a different view of the emailed comment during opening arguments, positing that Barrack was “extremely upset” that the Trump campaign had refused to include praise for UAE officials.
“He told the Trump campaign they were being imbecilic, and insisted they at least refer to the Gulf allies in the speech, a thinly veiled reference to the UAE and its close ally, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Mehta said during opening statements last month.
After Trump’s election, Barrack was in talks with the White House about serving as ambassador to the UAE — a job that prosecutors say Barrack aggressively pursued.
Barrack argues that it was the other way around.
“We are trying to arm twist Tom into getting involved in some capacity to advance this program for the Trump Administration,” K.T. McFarland, former deputy national security adviser to the United States, wrote in an email shown in court.
Trump also offered Barrack the position of secretary of the treasury, Barrack testified. He declined and told Trump — with whom he first worked in 1987 when Trump bought the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan — that, if he took the job, Trump was apt to fire him within 24 hours.
“I knew him too well. And I said it as a compliment. I just knew I would be better as a friend giving him advice when he needed it from the outside,” Barrack said. “He does his best, I felt, when you don’t need anything from him, and that’s where I felt I could be of service.”
Far from concealing his dealings in the Middle East from the White House, Barrack sought to put down “threads” for relationships that would benefit officials like Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior presidential adviser in his administration.
Barrack’s attorneys previously called former U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to testify in his defense, and former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified for the government. Both Mnuchin and Tillerson testified that they never asked Barrack to pass along information to the UAE.
Barrack’s testimony is expected to continue into next week.Follow @NinaPullano
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.