UAE Royals Said to Direct Tom Barrack’s Influence Campaign
(Bloomberg) -- Just weeks after Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, American billionaire Tom Barrack received a royal welcome in the United Arab Emirates.
On that December day, Barrack met with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi; the prince’s brother, who also serves as the country’s national security adviser; and a third royal who oversees the country’s Supreme Council for National Security, according to people familiar with the events. His audience with the high-ranking men shows how prized he was as a guest, and Barrack encouraged his hosts to envision what the next four years under Trump could hold for them.
U.S. prosecutors say the meeting was part of a secret back-channel effort to influence the foreign policy positions of the Trump campaign and incoming administration, and to increase the Gulf State’s political clout. Barrack was charged in July with acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the UAE. He has pleaded not guilty. None of the UAE officials who worked with Barrack have been charged with any wrongdoing in the case.
Barrack’s indictment identifies his hosts at the reception only as Emirati Officials 1, 2 and 3. According to people familiar with the matter, Emirati Official 1 is the UAE’s de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MBZ; Emirati Official 2 is his brother, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser; and Emirati Official 3 is Ali Mohammed Hammad Al Shamsi, director of the Emirati intelligence service.
Those three leaders, and a fourth UAE official, “tasked” Barrack and two co-defendants in 2016 with pushing the nation’s interests with the U.S., prosecutors allege. Emirati Official 4 is Abdullah Khalifa Al Ghafli, who has overseen the UAE’s humanitarian efforts in Pakistan; and Emirati Official 5 is Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing non-public matters.
The UAE foreign ministry and government media office didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment. A spokesman for the UAE embassy in Washington didn’t return a phone call and text message seeking comment. Representatives for Barrack and for the prosecutors declined to comment.
In the UAE, important policy decisions and business transactions are often discussed in regular evening meetings hosted by senior officials. The UAE has emerged as one of the strongest U.S. allies in the region, especially amid strains in the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
Barrack, who had a long history of doing business in the Middle East, had backed Trump early in his campaign, often going to bat for him with skeptical television interviewers. The Emiratis had placed an early bet on Barrack, whose friendship with Trump spanned decades -- according to prosecutors, they began asking Barrack to work on their behalf during the presidential campaign. Now the bet was paying off, with Barrack overseeing the presidential inaugural committee and helping to lead the transition team’s search for key government hires.
Barrack encouraged his hosts to think big, not just of what could be accomplished in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, but during his entire four-year term, according to the indictment. The pitch was a hit.
“They r very happy here great feedback,” Emirati businessman Rashid Al Malik texted Barrack’s assistant Matthew Grimes afterward, according to the indictment. Al Malik, who was charged alongside Barrack and one of Barrack’s assistants, fled the U.S. in April 2018, three days after law enforcement officials interviewed him about his work for the UAE, prosecutors said. Grimes, who was also indicted, has pleaded not guilty.
Barrack helped the Emiratis on several fronts, according to the indictment. He assisted in arranging a White House meeting with the president, and pushed the UAE’s preferred candidates for positions in the new administration, according to the indictment.
On May 15, 2017, Trump met with Emirati Official 1, according to the indictment. That’s the same day that MBZ publicly met the president, according to press reports, discussing their mutual interest in countering Iranian influence in the Arab world and fighting terrorism. MBZ helped prepare Trump for his visit four days later to Saudi Arabia.
Just after the election, Emirati Official 5 asked Barrack for insight on Trump’s possible appointments to key posts such as secretaries of state and defense, Central Intelligence Agency director and national security adviser, prosecutors said. Barrack responded: “I have our regional interest in high profile.”
By the spring of 2017, the Emirates pushed for the appointment of an unidentified U.S. congressman as ambassador to the UAE. That effort failed, and then Barrack himself emerged as a candidate for U.S. ambassador to the UAE or special envoy to the Middle East, according to the indictment. Barrack told Al Malik that any such appointment “would give ABU DHABI more power!,” according to the indictment. He didn’t get either job.
Barrack also provided inside information on how Trump administration officials regarded a UAE-led blockade of neighboring Qatar, prosecutors said in court papers.
In September 2017, Barrack told Al Malik the administration might host a Camp David meeting with Qatar on the boycott, according to the indictment. This was not a meeting that UAE wanted to happen. Barrack said he sent a message to Trump that he had “something very important to share” on the Middle East, according to the indictment. No meeting was held. Al Malik later texted Barrack his “very special thanks and appreciation from the big guy. All respect for your efforts.”
Prosecutors allege no other Barrack actions on behalf the UAE after September 2017.
But his crimes didn’t stop there, according to prosecutors. In June 2019, Barrack was interviewed by the FBI about his work on behalf of the UAE. He repeatedly lied, prosecutors allege. After his arraignment, Barrack said in a statement: “Of course I am innocent of all these charges and we will prove that in court.”
The Trump years would be troublesome for Barrack in other ways. Shares of his company Colony Capital collapsed despite a bull market in stocks. He also became embroiled in several investigations.
The Emiratis fared better: Trump supported a treaty between Israel and the UAE that resembled plans floated by Barrack years earlier.
After Barrack’s arrest, prosecutors depicted him as a serious risk to flee the U.S., noting he has dual citizenship with Lebanon and close ties to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. None of the countries have extradition treaties with the U.S. A judge released Barrack on $250 million bail as he awaits trial.
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