On early Tuesday morning, federal authorities dropped a bombshell: According to prosecutors, an American close to the president was also working for a foreign dictatorship and had been trying to influence policy. The indictment, filed in the Eastern District of New York, alleged an unregistered foreign agent named Thomas Barrack spent years liaising with the United Arab Emirates and then subtly attempting to maneuver former President Donald Trump toward UAE goals.
This parallel effort from an autocratic regime elsewhere highlights how seemingly susceptible the Trump administration was to outside influence.
Russia and other post-Soviet Union oligarchs have attempted to sway American politics in recent years. But this parallel effort from an autocratic regime elsewhere highlights how seemingly susceptible the Trump administration was to outside influence, as Trump surrounded himself with a rotating cast of shady characters with conflicting — and allegedly illegal — goals.
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Barrack, a former foreign policy and economic adviser to Trump, is perhaps best known as one of Trump’s top fundraisers in 2016. From there, he became chairman of Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee. A billionaire, Barrack spent years swimming in similar waters to Trump, eventually becoming a “close friend” of the former president, according to The New York Times. Through a spokesperson, Barrack has denied the charges. "Mr. Barrack has made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset. He is not guilty and will be pleading not guilty," the spokesperson said.
Yet in addition to working as a pro-Trump operative, Barrack allegedly had a side hustle as a secret agent for the UAE, a Gulf dictatorship with a habit of disappearing dissidents, journalists and even Western academics. Despite its human rights atrocities, the UAE has managed to remain a close American partner for years, in part due to the alleged work of Barrack.
Barrack now faces what are called Section 951 charges, which was the same charge levied against convicted Russian agent Maria Butina. While the charges are technically different from broader Foreign Agents Registration Act violations, both statutes center on those who covertly work in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments — and who fail to inform the U.S. Department of Justice about their relationships with those governments.
According to prosecutors, Barrack’s efforts on behalf of the UAE ran the gamut. Barrack allegedly changed Trump’s speeches in order to praise the Emirati dictatorship and lobbied for more pro-UAE policy and staffing decisions. He secretly passed internal White House discussions to the UAE government and gathered a so-called wish list of policy decisions from UAE officials that they wanted the Trump administration to implement, according to the indictment. Barrack also lobbied in more public ways, such as writing pro-UAE op-eds, it said.
Barrack, naturally, never bothered to disclose that he might have ulterior motives for taking such a pro-UAE tack, prosecutors say. It’s unclear exactly how much money Barrack made directly from such work, though it took place while Barrack’s private equity firm received some $1.5 billion from the UAE and its close ally Saudi Arabia, according to The New York Times. However, it appears clear who he was working directly with: Among those helping steer Barrack’s efforts seemed to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto head of the UAE’s dictatorial claque, appears to be identified in the American indictment as “Emirati Official 1.”
“The defendant [Barrack] is charged with extremely serious offenses based on conduct that strikes at the very heart of our democracy,” prosecutors wrote.
In any other administration, these revelations might have sent shock waves rippling through Washington. This was, after all, a foreign dictatorship allegedly steering a figure directly in the American president’s orbit, successfully influencing policy along the way.
This is a president, after all, whose head and deputy campaign chairs were both sentenced to jail time for secretly working on behalf of a foreign government.
But for Trump, the allegations are almost unsurprising. This is a president, after all, whose head and deputy campaign chairs were both sentenced to jail time for secretly working on behalf of a foreign government. This is a president whose personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is currently under investigation over whether he failed to register his work on behalf of corrupt foreign clientele and whose former acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, helped launder the reputation of a now-sanctioned oligarch without disclosing any of his work to American officials. (Both have denied any wrongdoing.) Heck, Barrack isn’t even the first prominent Trump fundraiser to be accused of secretly working at the behest of corrupt foreign actors — that honor belongs to Elliott Broidy, who recently pleaded guilty to a similar charge.
Nor is it necessarily surprising that the UAE would resort to such efforts to affect American policy. The dictatorship is connected to one of the greatest transnational corruption schemes ever created and has helped Dubai transform into one of the world’s greatest money laundering hot spots. It has also spent tens of millions lobbying American officials in recent years. The UAE even has the distinct honor of being the dictatorship that donates the most money to American think tanks, according to the Center for International Policy.
Whereas Russia relied on crooked officials like Mike Flynn (who flamed out in disgrace) and groups like the National Rifle Association to try to infiltrate American policy-making discussions, the UAE actually succeeded in reaching the highest echelons of the White House and even in implementing policies it apparently wanted.
Trump, of course, had no problem selling out to the highest foreign bidder whenever he had a chance. Like moths to a corrupt flame, he seemed to attract other crooked individuals, too.
Hopefully, with a new administration in the White House looking to expand efforts at unearthing undisclosed foreign lobbying networks, the halcyon days of foreign powers planting secret agents to whisper in the American president’s ear may be behind us.