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Trump ally accused as foreign agent nears close of trial

Would a 70-year-old man in a position to break the law do it on a desert bike ride? Tom Barrack's defense asked jurors to rule the idea preposterous.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Jurors will soon decide the fate of a longtime friend of Donald Trump charged with illegally lobbying the former president's campaign and administration on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. 

“Mr. Barrack sold the UAE on his political connections,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Harris told the jury during closing arguments on Tuesday in the Eastern District of New York. 

During the six-week trial, prosecutors laid out evidence to prove that investor Thomas J. Barrack Jr. acted as a UAE agent without registering with the U.S. attorney general while Trump was a candidate and president-elect, then lied to the FBI while under investigation. 

Prosecutors point to a 2016 Trump campaign speech Barrack helped to write, then sent to UAE officials in advance for input. Barrack, who chaired Trump's inaugural committee, says he did that at the direction of campaign chair Paul Manafort. 

They also showed the jury an email Barrack forwarded to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, wherein Barrack changed language from an Emirati contact to make it appear, as the government argued, that he was central and vital to building a relationship with UAE officials.

Barrack, 75, said he helped Kushner by putting down “threads” of relationships but did nothing illicit. The grandson of Lebanese immigrant parents, Barrack saw himself as a go-between — helping to find middle ground between the United States and Middle Eastern leaders, particularly while Trump was mounting a so-called Muslim ban as immigration policy.

Trump and Barrack first worked together in 1987 when Trump bought the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Though he never held a Trump administration role, Barrack remained an informal adviser to his longtime friend. Barrack was in talks about an ambassadorship but said he ultimately decided not to go forward.  

Trump also offered Barrack the position of secretary of the treasury, Barrack told jurors at his trial. He declined and told Trump 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 testified last month. “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.” 

It was his close ties to the former president, prosecutors say, that facilitated Barrack sending UAE officials information about Trump’s cabinet nominations and trying to influence Trump's view on the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis, during which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt blockaded Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism and pushing the Muslim Brotherhood to be classified as a terrorist organization.

The blockade became a major focus at trial, thanks in part to testimony from former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for the government and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin for the defense. To ease the tensions, Trump wanted to hold a summit at Camp David, Tillerson testified. 

Prosecutors said Barrack wanted to put a stop to that plan. 

“Mr. Barrack put his thumb on the scale to kill a Camp David summit for the UAE government,” Harris said. 

Harris pointed to $374 million in UAE investments put into Colony Capital, Barrack’s investment firm now called Digital Bridge, between 2017 and 2018, “after not receiving a dime from these sovereign wealth funds — not a penny — in the eight years beforehand.” 

Barrack’s attorneys say that money constituted less than half a percent of the total funds Colony managed, compared with 5.5% in investments from Qatar — the UAE’s “sworn enemy,” as described by Barrack’s attorney Randall Jackson. 

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Jackson argued that in a separate, voluntary form called an SF-86, Barrack disclosed contact with foreign officials from 147 countries, including UAE officials. 

At several points in his closings, Jackson ridiculed the government’s case. He called out a government theory that Barrack firmed up his agreement with UAE officials during an August 2016 trip to Morocco where he met with Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed Al Nahyan, national security adviser of the UAE. 

“No one, if they want to have a serious discussion about an illegal arrangement with a 70-year-old man, says, ‘let’s do it on a bike ride in the desert,’” mused Jackson, of the New York City-based firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. 

The defense attorney mimicked how that conversation might go: “Hey, Tom, how do you feel about betraying your country?" he cried, roleplaying an out-of-breath cyclist. “And Tom is saying, ‘I’d love to betray my country,’” Jackson continued, pretending to sputter and cough.

Jackson’s closings started on a more somber note. He told the story of the late Norman Mineta, a former congressman and cabinet member for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Mineta, who was Japanese-American, was detained in a U.S. prison camp when he was a young boy. 

“When you don’t truly understand something, it’s easy to approach it from a perspective where you view it as a threat without cause,” Jackson said. “If you think about it, every single one of the most unfortunate chapters in American history has involved that perspective.”

He went on to cite suspicions that former President John F. Kennedy Jr., the first Catholic president, may be subject to the direction of the pope. 

That was a real campaign against him, and it was nonsense,” Jackson said. “What you have heard throughout this entire case is the government inviting you to join in a chapter of nonsense. … Decline that invitation.” 

Standing trial alongside Barrack was his former intern-turned-vice president, Matthew Grimes. 

Even as the now-29-year-old rose through the ranks at Barrack’s firm, Grimes’ attorneys argued, he remained a “gofer” whose duties involved tasks like bringing Barrack smoothies and photographing events. 

Attorney Abbe Lowell cast Grimes as a go-getter who started his own DJ business at age 14 and snagged the job with Barrack after working a gig at the birthday party of the former billionaire’s son. 

An anecdote told several times at trial involved Grimes taking an unexpected Christmas trip to Hawaii to bring Barrack the gifts he’d forgotten to take with him, causing Grimes to miss spending the holiday with his own family. 

“A foreign agent does not schlep the luggage, buy the cupcakes, arrange the massages and make sure his boss’s kid has her stuffed animal,” said Lowell, of Winston & Strawn. “A person cannot become an agent by mistake or by happenstance.” 

Barrack and Grimes are each charged with one count of acting on behalf of the UAE without notifying the U.S. attorney general and a second count of conspiracy to do the same. Barrack in addition is charged with one count of obstructing a grand jury investigation and six counts of making false statements to the FBI. 

Before closings, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan limited government theories that he called “right on the line between barely permissible inference and impermissible speculation.” 

The jury could not find Grimes guilty based only on aiding and abetting the alleged crimes, Cogan ruled. He also eliminated part of an allegation regarding an alleged false statement to the FBI regarding Barrack using a dedicated phone to contact associates in the Middle East. 

Cogan is expected to charge the jury on Wednesday, followed by the start of deliberations.

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