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Trump ally roundly acquitted in foreign lobbying trial

Tom Barrack was an informal adviser to Trump’s campaign and testified about his efforts to ease concerns in the Middle East regarding the former president's travel ban against Muslim-majority countries.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — A former billionaire who chaired the inaugural committee of former President Donald Trump, his longtime friend, was acquitted Friday of acting as an unregistered agent of the United Arab Emirates.

Thomas J. Barrack Jr., 75, stood trial for more than six weeks in Brooklyn federal court, charged with working on behalf of the UAE to influence Trump’s campaign and administration, and lying to the FBI while under investigation. 

“God bless America. The system works,” Barrack celebrated Friday outside the Eastern District of New York courthouse. “Against all odds, these 12 people, normal people, with such complex and believable facts in front of them, somehow fight through all of the quagmire to find Lady Justice.”

Barrack told reporters he was on his way to see the Statue of Liberty but, asked about his immediate plans he said, “I’m gonna go have a drink.”

The Santa Monica, California-based Barrack had faced nine counts in a trial replete with hundreds of emails and text messages, many involving a vice president at Barrack's investment firm, Matthew Grimes, who rose from the ranks of intern where his job entailed gofer-like duties like fetching smoothies for Barrack and manage luggage during trips. Grimes, 29, was charged the top two counts of the indictment and was also acquitted Friday. Their final co-defendant, Emirati national Rashid Al-Malik, remains at large. 

Two Trump administration cabinet members testified at the men's trial: former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for the government and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin for the defense. 

On the basis of executive privilege, Mnuchin declined to answer several questions, including those about a proposed Camp David summit. 

A prosecutor later told the court he believed Mnuchin had leaned on a privilege “that was not his to invoke,” and that the government was “considering the legal framework and how that plays.” No submissions on the issue have been filed to date. 

Barrack himself spent five days on the stand rebutting the government’s characterization of his dealings with officials from the UAE and United States. 

Prosecutors pointed to a 2016 Trump campaign speech Barrack helped to write, then sent to UAE officials in advance for input. Barrack said he did that at the direction of campaign chair Paul Manafort. 

Leading up to the election, Barrack met with Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed Al Nahyan, national security adviser of the UAE. Prosecutors told jurors that’s where plans were hatched for Barrack to help UAE officials gain influence in the United States; Barrack said they talked business and discussed the so-called Muslim ban that Trump, still a candidate at the time, had pledged to put in place. 

The jury also saw 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 says he helped Kushner and others by putting down “threads” of those relationships but did nothing illicit. 

During closing arguments Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan 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, of the New York City-based firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. 

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Jackson left the courtroom a happy man.

“I just feel fantastic,” he said. “We had total faith in the jury, and we’re just deeply, deeply appreciative.”

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan read the verdict shortly before noon, almost exactly 48 hours after deliberations began on Wednesday. The parties declined to poll the jury.

Leaving the courthouse, one juror told Courthouse News about the panel's journey to a verdict.

“It was hard,” said Diane Gracia, who has been trekking to the courthouse in Brooklyn from Staten Island for the last seven weeks, beginning with jury selection on September 19. The challenge stemmed, Gracia said, from “the inferences and lack of, sometimes, information. But it was difficult.”

Barrack was released on a $250 million bond ahead of the proceedings in the Eastern District of New York.

Barrack and the Trump campaign

Trump and Barrack were friends decades before the 2016 presidential election. They first worked together in 1987 when Trump bought the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Post-election, Barrack was in talks with the Trump administration about becoming a foreign ambassador but testified that he ultimately decided not to go forward except as an informal adviser. 

The defendant can give the impression at times that he has a first generation link to the Middle East — both in news interviews shown in court and on the stand — though it was his grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon. He says his background helped him liaise across hemispheres.

When Trump was talking on the campaign trail about a travel ban and other inflammatory foreign policy ideas, like his plan to build a wall at the border of Mexico and the United States, Barrack testified that he sought to do damage control. He said was concerned that the GOP had “taken on a racist tone." 

“To have the Republican Party not viewed as a racist party was important,” Barrack said on the stand. He wanted to make it clear to Emirati and other Middle Eastern leaders that “the Republican Party is not gunning for any of you.” 

Even as he continued to defend Trump’s rhetoric, Barrack said, he didn’t agree with it. Convinced it was all talk, Barrack said he expected Trump's policies to “transition” once elected. 

“I knew him to be bold, smart, instinctively brilliant and more resilient than anybody that I ever knew,” Barrack said of Trump. 

For Barrack's own business, however, he said supporting the former president proved “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.” 

Trump responded to the verdict Friday, veering into comments about U.S. foreign policy and the upcoming midterm election after saying Barrack never should have been charged.

"My great respect goes out to the jurors for their courage and understanding in coming to an absolutely correct decision. This could be the beginning of our breakaway from Communism, and other very deep and dark places where the United States should never be," Trump said in a statement. "The upcoming Election is very big, but these acquittals of two innocent men greatly set the Radical Left back."

Trump also used the statement to claim that the Capitol rioters are being treated unfairly. "Let them all go now!" he wrote.

Middle Eastern relations 

Among the charges against Barrack was an allegation that he worked to influence Trump’s position 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, with Tillerson and Mnuchin both testifying about it. 

To ease the tensions, Trump wanted to hold a summit at Camp David, Tillerson testified. While prosecutors said Barrack worked to kill that plan, Mnuchin testified that Barrack disagreed with Trump’s public criticism of Qatar and apparent support of the blockade. 

“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.” 

Mirroring their argument about UAE investments, Barrack’s attorneys said it would make no sense for a covert UAE agent to advocate on Qatar’s behalf. 

During his own testimony Barrack also addressed controversial comments he made defending Saudi Arabia’s reputation after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. A White House report found that the killing was “likely ordered” by Saudi Arabia Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, who was cited throughout at trial as one of Barrack’s contacts in the Middle East. 

“Whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal, or worse,” Barrack told a reporter at a conference in 2019 in Abu Dhabi. 

He later backed down. “I apologize for not making it clear at the time that I consider the killing reprehensible,” he wrote in a statement. 

The remark gave Barrack’s public relations team a “heart attack,” he testified. 

Cogan limited the government’s ability to ask questions about Khashoggi. “That includes the notion that he was an innocent, good guy,” remarked Cogan, a George W. Bush appointee, calling that characterization controversial. 

Barrack’s attorney Jackson dismissed the ordeal as a “complete sideshow” since there is no allegation that the defendants were agents for Saudi Arabia.

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