BROOKLYN (CN) — The Trump ally accused of illegal lobbying and lying to the FBI took the stand Monday in his own defense against the federal charges.
Prosecutors say global investment adviser Thomas Joseph Barrack, 75, took direction from United Arab Emirates leaders while Donald Trump was a candidate and president-elect, working to influence Trump’s Middle Eastern policies, without registering with the U.S. government as a foreign agent — then lied to federal agents while under investigation. Barrack was an informal campaign adviser to Trump and chaired his inaugural committee.
Barrack had kind words for the former president’s ideas during his campaign, at least in its early stages, saying that it was an “amazing thing” that someone like Trump, with no political experience, could enter the fray as a long-shot candidate.
“I knew him to be bold, smart, instinctively brilliant and more resilient than anybody that I ever knew,” said Barrack, who testified that he first worked with Trump in 1987 when Trump decided to buy the Plaza Hotel. “I don’t think anybody took very seriously that a New York real estate investor-turned reality show star was a real contender.”
As a friend and adviser to Trump, Barrack believed Trump’s tone, particularly anti-Muslim rhetoric, would “transition” after he took office. He wanted leaders in the Middle East to speak with then-candidate Trump to understand that Trump was well-meaning, Barrack testified.
In 2015, Barrack met with Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, national security adviser of UAE, to do just that.
“At the time I knew most of the Arabs were super concerned — not that Trump was going to become president, but that any candidate [for president] could attack the Muslim religion in this way,” Barrack told the court, claiming that he didn’t yet know about Tahnoun’s government role.
Barrack and Tahnoun discussed their mutual interest in horses — Barrack played polo on horseback — and Tahnoun showed Barrack the cycling track he’d put up in his backyard. The UAE official appreciated Barrack taking a risk on Trump, whom Barrack suggested Tahnoun meet with directly to find common ground, Barrack testified.
Being on Trump’s team, however, ultimately backfired. Asked by his attorney Michael Schachter about the professional repercussions of supporting Trump, Barrack answered in a word: “disastrous.”
By 2018, with the “continued drama that this president found himself in,” Barrack was getting it from all sides.
“Shareholders were upset — were upset that I was a friend of the president. That’s on the U.S. side,” Barrack said.
“On the Middle East side … I had this amazingly good businessman who’d become president of the United States who could not spell Middle East.”
Barrack used the same metaphor to describe the naivete of his co-defendant at trial, Matthew Grimes, an intern-turned-vice president at Colony Capital, Barrack’s investment firm. Emails displayed at trial show the 27-year-old Grimes shuttling notes, articles and information between Barrack, foreign officials and a third defendant, Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, who is at large.
Grimes, who is around the same age as Barrack’s children, was kind, considerate and eager to learn, Barrack testified. Shortly after the two met, Barrack hired Grimes to DJ at his son’s party, and Grimes would later take a low-level job with Barrack. According to Grimes’ attorneys, his duties included little more than bringing Barrack smoothies and coordinating his luggage for business trips.
“Would you have ever put him in any situation that would have put him in harm’s way?” asked Schachter, of the firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.
“One of the worst feelings of my life is him sitting in this courtroom today,” Barrack replied. “It’s ridiculous.”
A prosecutor objected.
“O.K. The word ‘ridiculous’ is struck,” ruled Senior U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, a George W. Bush appointee.
Barrack’s testimony will continue on Tuesday.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.