Tom Barrack charged with illegally lobbying then-President Trump on behalf of UAE

Key Points
  • Thomas Barrack, a private equity investor, was arrested with two other men on charges related to illegally lobbying his close friend former President Donald Trump for the United Arab Emirates while Trump was running for and serving as president.
  • Barrack was ordered detained in Los Angeles pending a bail hearing next Monday.
  • The chairman of Trump's 2017 inaugural celebration, Barrack is the founder of the large private equity firm Colony Capital.
Trump ally Tom Barrack arrested on foreign lobbying charges
Trump ally Tom Barrack arrested on foreign lobbying charges

Thomas Barrack, a private equity investor who is a close friend of former President Donald Trump, was arrested Tuesday morning in Los Angeles on federal charges of illegally lobbying Trump on behalf of the United Arab Emirates.

Barrack, who was charged with two other men in a seven-count indictment in Brooklyn, New York, federal court, was chairman of Trump's 2017 inaugural fund.

Barrack was ordered detained in Los Angeles pending a bail hearing next Monday.

The Santa Monica, California, resident is accused with the other defendants of secretly advancing the interests of the UAE at the direction of senior officials of that country by influencing the foreign policy positions of Trump's 2016 campaign, and then those positions of the U.S. government during Trump's presidency through April 2018.

Barrack, who never registered with the American government as an agent for the UAE, also is charged with obstruction of justice and making multiple false statements during a June 2019 interview with federal law enforcement agents.

The indictment noted that Barrack, 74, during that time covered by the indictment informally advised American officials on Middle East policy, and also sought appointment to a senior role in the U.S. government, including as special envoy to the Middle East.

The evidence against Barrack includes thousands of emails, text messages, iCloud records, flight records and social media records, prosecutors separately said in a detention memo.

Prosecutors said the "evidence of [Barrack's] guilt in this case is overwhelming."

Prosecutors also said that Barrack had met with and assisted senior leaders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is a close UAE ally, and that he "provided UAE government officials 'with sensitive non-public information about developments within the Administration, including information about the positions of multiple senior United States government officials with respect to the Qatari blockade conducted by the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries.'"

Charged with Barrack are Matthew Grimes, 27, of Aspen, Colorado, and a 43-year-old UAE national, Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, who remains at large.

Grimes, who worked directly for Barrack at the Barrack-founded private equity firm Colony Capital, was arrested in California and detained pending a bail hearing next Monday.

Grimes has a "close personal relationship" with Barrack, has taken more than 50 international trips on Barrack's private plane, and lists Barrack's $15 million home in Aspen as his primary residence, prosecutors said in a court filing.

"On multiple occasions, Barrack referred to [Al Malik] as the UAE's 'secret weapon' to advance its foreign policy agenda in the United States," the Justice Department said in a press release.

"In furtherance of the alleged criminal conspiracy and conduct, Barrack and Grimes, with the assistance of [Al Malik], acquired a dedicated cellular telephone and installed a secure messaging application to facilitate Barrack's communications with senior UAE officials," the department said.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mark Lesko of the Justice Department's national security division said: "The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack's friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected President, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances."

Thomas Barrack, chairman and chief executive officer of Colony Capital Inc., gestures while speaking during the closing reception at the Milken Institute Japan Symposium in Tokyo, Japan, on Monday, March 25, 2019.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"The conduct alleged in the indictment is nothing short of a betrayal of those officials in the United States, including the former President," Lesko said in a statement.

Prosecutors said that Barrack in communications with Al Malik "framed his efforts to obtain an official position within the Administration as one that would enable him to further advance the interests of the UAE, rather than the interests of the United States."

"When the defendant sought a position as either U.S. Ambassador to the UAE or Special Envoy to the Middle East, he advised Al Malik that any such appointment 'would give ABU DHABI more power!' the memo said referring to the capital city of the UAE.

"Al Malik concurred that, if the defendant successfully obtained an appointment to such an official position, it would make the defendant 'deliver more' for the UAE, making their efforts a '[v]ery effective operation.'  The defendant agreed."

A spokeswoman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Barrack's arrest.

Matthew Herrington, an attorney for Barrack, told CNBC that his client was arrested in Los Angeles "despite the fact that we've cooperated with this investigation from the outset."

A spokesman for Barrack said: "Mr. Barrack has made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset. He is not guilty and will be pleading not guilty."

Barrack stepped down as CEO of Colony Capital in 2020. He resigned as executive chairman of the firm in April.

Federal prosecutors have been investigating Barrack's alleged work on behalf of the UAE for at least two years. 

One of the events that caught their attention was a speech about energy policy that Trump gave as a candidate for president in May 2016. 

The indictment charges that Barrack "inserted language praising the UAE" into the speech, and "emailed an advance draft of the speech to [Al Malik] for delivery to senior UAE officials."

For the next two years, prosecutors allege, Barrack "sought and received direction and feedback, including talking points, from senior UAE officials in connection with national press appearances Barrack used to promote the interests of the UAE."

"During this time, Barrack never registered as a lobbyist for the UAE, as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act," the indictment says.

The indictment said that in December 2016, a month after Trump's election, Barrack attended a meeting with Grimes, Al Malik and senior UAE government officials, where he advised them to create a "wish list" of U.S. foreign policy items that the UAE wanted to be accomplished during different time spans in the new administration.

The indictment also said that in the following March, Barrack and the other two men agreed to promote the candidacy of a person favored by top UAE officials for the position of U.S. ambassador to that country.

And in September 2017, Al Malik "communicated with Barrack about the opposition of the UAE to a proposed summit at Camp David to address an ongoing dispute between the State of Qatar, the UAE and other Middle Eastern governments, after which Barrack sought to advise the President of the United States against holding the Camp David summit," the Justice Department noted in its press release. "The summit never happened."

The UAE, where Trump maintained business ties before becoming president, established a key relationship to the U.S. during the Trump administration.

The UAE signed onto the 2020 Abraham Accords, which took steps toward normalizing relations between a handful of Middle East nations, including Israel.

Last November, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration would sell more than $23 billion worth of military equipment to the UAE "in recognition of our deepening relationship" and the nation's "need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran."

A friend of Trump's for decades, Barrack emerged as an early backer of Trump's presidential bid long before many on Wall Street considered the real estate developer a serious contender for the White House.

By the spring of 2016 when Trump began to sweep primaries, Barrack and Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, convinced him that he needed to hire a real campaign manager.

Barrack pressed Trump to bring on Paul Manafort, a longtime Washington fixture and Republican lobbyist.

Manafort eventually rose to the position of Trump campaign chairman before he was forced to step down in August 2016 following reports of foreign lobbying he did on behalf of Ukrainian politicians. Both Manafort and Barrack hoped their cooperation in 2016 would accrue to each man's benefit.

Barrack wanted to be appointed Middle East envoy in a future Trump administration. But after Trump won the White House, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, intervened, and Barrack did not get the job.

Manafort, meanwhile, had hoped that Barrack's connections in the Middle East would translate into lucrative business for Manafort's lobbying practice.

But the yearslong investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller put an end to the hopes of Barrack and Manafort to rise to positions of prominence in the Trump White House. 

Questions about Barrack's foreign lobbying first came to light during Mueller's investigation, according to prosecutors. 

By the end of his probe, Mueller had referred a total of 14 criminal cases to prosecutors, most of which remain sealed to this day. 

In 2018, Manafort was found guilty by a jury of eight felonies related to foreign lobbying and tax evasion. He served just under two years in prison and was released in June of last year.

Trump later pardoned Manafort shortly before leaving the White House.

Correction: Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight felonies in 2018. An earlier version misstated the year.