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Trump ally’s foreign agent, justice obstruction trial kicks off in New York

Tom Barrack’s attorneys distanced his own politics from those of his longtime associate Donald Trump. “This wasn’t a political relationship. Tom voted for President Obama twice."

BROOKLYN (CN) — In an already fraught week for Donald Trump, trial opened Wednesday against the former president’s campaign adviser charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent. 

Tom Barrack faces seven counts accusing him of working on behalf of the United Arab Emirates while Trump was both a candidate and president-elect, as well as obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI. 

The longtime Trump associate used his ties to the White House to help UAE officials gain influence in the United States, according to prosecutors, starting in spring of 2016 — including providing information about Trump’s nominations for director of the CIA, secretary of defense, secretary of state, and national security advisor. 

“It all started with a speech,”  Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta said in his opening statement, referring to a 2016 campaign speech that Barrack wrote for Trump and then edited at the request of UAE officials to include praise for the nation’s crown prince. 

When Trump’s team cut the reference, Barrack became “extremely upset,” Mehta said. 

“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 the 20-minute opening.  

The prosecutor said Barrack, 75, became the “eyes, ears and voice” of the UAE, all in the “corrupt pursuit of money and power.” 

After Barrack became Trump’s inaugural committee chair, he met with the UAE’s crown prince and national security adviser, Mehta said.

“There they discussed designing a plan for the UAE to influence the United States government for the first 100 days, 6 months, 1 year, and 4 years of the incoming administration.” 

Then, under investigation, Barrack thwarted the efforts of federal agents, Mehta said. “He lied again and again and again to the FBI.”  

To make their case, prosecutors will present hundreds of emails and text messages, flight and business records, and witnesses to explain the workings of the UAE government and foreign influence. The government called its first witness, Middle East expert Christopher Davidson, late in the day on Wednesday.

Prosecutors pointed to a $74 million investment in Barrack’s real estate investment firm — formerly Colony Capital, now called Digital Bridge — from a fund controlled by the UAE government. 

Barrack’s attorneys say that’s a small amount compared with investments from Qatar, which refutes claims about UAE influence since the two countries “deeply distrust each other and have effectively been at war.” 

Attorney Michael Schachter opened Barrack’s case, calling the charges “nothing short of ridiculous.” 

He drew a parallel with McDonald’s — which stopped doing business in Russia after calls to do so by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

“The fact that McDonalds did what Ukraine’s president happened to ask, it doesn’t mean that McDonald’s had entered into an agreement with the Ukrainian government, subject to the direction or control of Ukraine,” said Schachter, of the firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. "It was merely a business decision."

The same was true for Barrack, who made decisions as his “own man,” Schacter said. “He did things because he wanted to and because he believed it was the right thing to do for his business, his work, his shareholders, and for America.” 

As the grandchild of Lebanese immigrants, Barrack felt a connection to the Middle East, and had an “innate appreciation” of other cultures. He became a globetrotting businessman while building his $40 billion business, Schachter said. 

“We are a nation of immigrants. People can love America and the land where their parents and grandparents come from. They may refer to that place as their home, or region,” Schachter said. “That doesn't make them foreign agents. It makes them Americans.” 

When Barrack called the UAE an important ally in television interviews, Schachter said, the comment was a far cry from the propaganda the government accuses Barrack of spewing. 

“President Obama said the exact same thing. So has President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, George W. Bush, Hilary Clinton,” Schachter said. “They all have said the same words.” 

The attorney also distanced his client from Trump, or at least his politics. 

“This wasn’t a political relationship. Tom voted for President Obama twice,” Schachter  said. “It was a personal relationship.” 

Standing trial alongside Barrack is Matthew Grimes, a former investment analyst and vice president of Barrack’s investment firm. 

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 former billionaire’s son’s birthday party. 

Grimes, 29, only took directions from Barrack, Lowell said. And while he rose through the ranks, Grimes’ duties didn’t actually change: He remained a “gofer” tasked with bringing Barrack coffee and smoothies, taking photos of Barrack at events, and making sure his luggage arrived and plane was stocked with food while Barrack was traveling. 

“All he was doing was his U.S. job for his U.S. company run by his U.S. boss,” said Lowell, of Winston & Strawn LLP. “A person cannot become a foreign agent by accident.” 

Barrack’s and Grimes’ co-defendant, Emirati national Rashid Al-Malik, remains at large. 

Wednesday’s kickoff followed two days of voir dire, during which U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan and attorneys for both sides asked prospective jurors about their feelings toward Middle Eastern countries, Trump, and the 2016 election. 

Answering the judge’s questions, jurors also noted their feelings toward other public figures, both admiration (Obama, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jordan) and dislike (the Kardashians, Trump himself). 

Unfavorable feelings toward Trump, whom Cogan said could possibly testify at trial, were not a disqualifier. 

“I don’t mean any disrespect to the former president by this,” the judge said, “but we’re in Brooklyn. If we exclude anybody who had a strong feeling against the former president, we may not be able to select a jury.” 

Leaving court on Tuesday, Barrack told Courthouse News the voir dire process had been “humbling” and had kind words for prosecutors and Cogan while leaving jury selection. Seeing what “working people go through to be part of the process – I was super impressed,” Barrack said.

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