Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of Donald Trump's, denied in court Wednesday that he had ever acted as an agent of the United Arab Emirates and said the former president's campaign was the driving force behind seeking the UAE's input on an energy policy speech during the 2016 campaign.
Taking the stand for a third day in his own defense, Barrack told jurors in New York’s Brooklyn federal court that Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, asked him to write the speech. After he received the request, Barrack said, he turned to employees at his private equity fund, Colony Capital, to draft Trump's remarks.
Barrack, 75, has said he shared a draft of the speech with a go-between to the Emirati government for any input officials from the Gulf state might want to share. Prosecutors allege that in doing so, Barrack was trying to cash in on his ties to Trump while acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the UAE.
Barrack testified that one of the points of the energy comments was to reassure foreign governments after a blistering speech Trump had given about foreign policy, in which he bashed China and Middle Eastern countries. Trump "pounded into oblivion the Middle East and said we would not rely on them for oil," Barrack said, adding that Manafort was concerned about the global reaction to the remarks.
In a text message displayed in court Wednesday, Manafort asked Barrack, who had just been in the UAE, "Are you running this by our friends where you where 10 days ago?"
Barrack testified that he, indeed, ran the draft speech by his UAE contacts and wound up incorporating some of their suggestions. But Trump and his campaign essentially threw out that version of the speech, Barrack said, in favor of one he considered "imbecilic."
"I'm not calling President Trump imbecilic," he quickly added, but the speech was "just bombastic with no support of underlying thought." He said he told the Trump campaign he was "stunned by how bad this is."
Prosecutors maintain that Barrack took advantage of his long friendship with Trump to “illegally provide” UAE officials with access to the president and senior administration officials and that he did so for “money and power.” He is charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the Justice Department, a violation that carries up to 10 years in prison, in addition to charges that he lied to the FBI about his foreign contacts.
Barrack gave his reasons Wednesday for having taken other actions described as being part of the alleged scheme, including helping to set up meetings between UAE officials and Trump and administration officials.
Barrack acknowledged he reached out to Trump's office to connect him with UAE leaders during the transition period after the 2016 election, but he said he did the same for other world leaders he knew, from countries like Italy, Argentina, Hungary and Qatar.
Barrack's lawyer, Michael Schachter, asked him Wednesday about an exchange he had with the UAE's ambassador, who was asking Barrack whether he had any insight about whom Trump was going to nominate to head the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department.
"I do, and we’re working through them in real time," Barrack responded to the ambassador in a text message displayed in court. "When you get a chance let’s talk by phone."
Barrack said he did not "share my thoughts" about the potential nominees.
Barrack's lawyers also asked him about various posts he was up for early in Trump's presidency.
Barrack, who said he rejected a request by Trump on election night to be treasury secretary, testified that Trump offered him the chance to be ambassador to the UAE at one point and that administration officials urged him to become a Middle East or Latin American special envoy.
One post Barrack said he was interested in was ambassador to Mexico, but he added that he later withdrew his name from consideration. He noted that the paperwork he filed with the U.S. government when he was being considered listed about 500 foreign nationals he had been in close contact with, including the UAE officials.
Asked by his attorney whether listing those names indicated there was a secret arrangement, Barrack answered, "No, the opposite."
Justice Department attorneys are expected to cross-examine Barrack starting Thursday.