Tom Barrack, a friend of former President Donald Trump's who was chair of his inaugural committee, took the witness stand in his own defense in New York's Brooklyn federal court Monday to push back against allegations that he sought to cash in on his ties to Trump by acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the United Arab Emirates.
Barrack, a billionaire from California, testified that his private equity fund, Colony Capital, did big business with other Middle East countries besides the UAE, including Qatar and Kuwait.
Asked by his defense attorney whether he could have agreed to act as an agent of just one investor, Barrack said that would have been "impossible" because it would have soured other investors in his multibillion-dollar fund, giving them the perception that "if you’re acting for them, you're not going to act for us."
He also answered questions about his decades of friendship with Trump, whom he called "smart, instinctively brilliant and more resilient than anybody I ever knew." Barrack said the relationship ended up being "disastrous" for him professionally. Asked to support that characterization, Barrack responded, "I'm sitting with all of you today."
Barrack said he'd had high hopes that he could influence Trump's view on Middle East policy and that Trump would tamp down some of his divisive language after he took office. "I thought he would transition, this rhetoric. ... The style was something that I and others didn’t appreciate," Barrack said. "I thought he would just change."
Barrack said that when Trump didn't dial back his language, his publicly traded company paid the price for its public ties to him. "Owners of public shares vote with their feet," he said. "It was a nightmare."
Barrack, 75, is charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent and lying to the FBI. Prosecutors allege he used his friendship with Trump to “illegally provide” government officials from the UAE with access to the president and senior administration officials and then lied to federal agents about his actions.
Prosecutors largely built their case against Barrack and his former assistant, Matthew Grimes, by showing jurors hundreds of their text and email messages with an Emirati businessman named Rashid Al Malik, whom prosecutors have described as their go-between for dealings Emirati officials.
The messages showed Emirati officials giving feedback to Barrack about what he should say in TV interviews and input about what Trump should say about energy policy in a 2016 campaign speech.
Prosecutors said UAE officials also pressed Barrack for details about whom Trump would pick for various high-level jobs, including CIA director and positions at the State and Defense departments.
Barrack's lawyers have said he is his own man and was doing what he thought was right — not acting as an Emirati agent.
On the witness stand, Barrack detailed an April 2016 meeting he had with a sheikh who was also the UAE's national security adviser. Prosecutors have said the meeting was the beginning of the foreign agent scheme.
Barrack said the sheikh, Tahnoun bin Zayed, had been concerned about Trump's public call as a candidate for a ban on Muslims’ entering the U.S. "He said this Muslim ban thing is very confusing," Barrack said. He said that he reassured the sheikh that Trump is "smart" and "dedicated to stopping terrorism, but he could use some Middle East input," and that he told the sheikh "I think you’d be amazed if you had this dialogue with him directly."
He said his meeting with the sheikh wasn't secret, saying he discussed it with Colony Capital officials and with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chief Paul Manafort. A meeting with Trump and the sheikh never happened.
Barrack was also asked about an email he sent to the sheikh after their initial meeting, which he signed, "At your service." “It’s a salutation I use to be polite,” Barrack said, displaying for the jury an email with similar wording he had sent to the CEO of Guess.
Barrack testified the same day his attorneys asked the judge to acquit him before the case goes to the jury because the government "failed to show that Mr. Barrack ever entered into an agreement to serve under the direction or control of the UAE."
"Even viewed in the light most favorable to the government, the evidence shows only that the 'UAE' sometimes asked Mr. Barrack to do something, or to consider doing something, and Mr. Barrack then decided for himself whether he would do it or not," they said.
In their opening arguments on Sept. 21, Barrack's attorneys said he broke with the UAE over a blockade against Qatar — a claim bolstered by former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who testified in Barrack's behalf last week. He said Barrack had pushed him to persuade Trump to support Qatar in a blockade over the UAE.
Trump came to Barrack's defense on social media Sunday night, calling him a "highly respected businessman whose DREAM was to see PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST, a very good and noble thing."
Trump said the "weaponized" Justice Department "has accused him of being a foreign agent of the UAE, which I don't believe he was."
"He NEVER spoke to me about 'speeches' and what to say on this subject," Trump added in his Truth Social post. "He is being unfairly persecuted only because he is a supporter of 'Trump.'"