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Trump associate Tom Barrack arrested on UAE lobbying charges

Billionaire charged with trying to influence foreign policy positions of 2016 Trump presidential campaign and early years of Trump administration
Tom Barrack, former Deputy Interior Undersecretary in Reagan administration, delivers a speech on fourth day of Republican National Convention on 21 July 2016

A property investor and close friend of former US President Donald Trump has been arrested and charged with violating foreign lobbying laws, obstructing justice and making false statements.

A seven-count indictment accused Thomas J Barrack of using his access to Trump to advance the foreign policy goals of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as revealed by Middle East Eye in 2018.

The indictment said the 74-year-old then repeatedly misled federal agents about his activities during a June 2019 interview.

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Barrack, whose property and investment firms do extensive business in the Middle East, was arrested following a years-long investigation into his dealings with the UAE, the Department of Justice announced on Tuesday.

The indictment, filed by the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn and unsealed on Tuesday, said that Barrack and two others were acting and conspiring to act as agents of the UAE between April 2016 and April 2018.

The charges cover work done during Trump's campaign, his transition into the presidency and the early stages of his administration.

FBI interview

The investigation was launched into Barrack's involvement with unregistered UAE lobbyists sometime in 2019, at which time the FBI interviewed Barrack for questioning over the allegations. 

The indictment says that Barrack, who never registered with the US government as an agent for the UAE, lied to FBI agents about his dealings with the oil-rich nation at the time.  

Under US law, any person or entity making attempts to influence American policy or opinion at the direction of foreign governments or entities is required to disclose their activities to the Justice Department.

Federal prosecutors say Barrack, who is of Lebanese descent and speaks Arabic, capitalised on his access to Trump, other high-ranking government officials and US journalists to "advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true alliances". 

The New York Times first reported in July 2019 that federal prosecutors were investigating Barrack and other Trump associates' ties to foreign actors who were seeking to vie for influence in the White House.

According to the newspaper, 2016 email records between Barrack and Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign chairman, suggested that the Trump team had been running lines from a speech on energy policy by Middle East contacts, including Rashid al-Malik Alshahhi, an Emirati businessman who is close to the rulers of the UAE.

Alshahhi and Matthew Grimes, a former employee of Barrack, were also charged in Tuesday's indictment. 

'Running Trump's speeches by the UAE'

According to the indictment, Barrack "inserted language praising the UAE" in one of Trump's 2016 campaign speeches about US energy policy, and then "emailed an advance draft of the speech to Alshahhi for delivery to senior UAE officials".

Alshahhi's name had already surfaced in connection with a federal probe into potential illegal donations to Trump’s inaugural fund and a pro-Trump Super PAC by Middle Eastern donors in 2018. Around that time he was interviewed by members of special counsel Robert Mueller's team as part of the investigation. 

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Emails between Barrack and Manafort about the energy speech are just some of the exchanges that prosecutors were reportedly investigating as part of the probe on foreign influence within the Trump campaign and administration. 

Between Trump’s nomination and the end of June, Colony Capital, Barrack’s real estate investment and private equity firm, received about $1.5bn from Saudi Arabia and the UAE through investments or other transactions, the Times reported. That included $474m in investments from Saudi and Emirati sovereign wealth funds, out of $7bn that Colony raised in investments worldwide. 

Barrack has denied all allegations, saying he had no incentive to lobby on behalf of any particular country or countries in the Gulf.

The latest of Trump's associates to face criminal charges, Barrack joins Trump's former campaign chairman; the chief financial officer at Trump's company; the former Trump Organization lawyer; Trump’s former White House strategist; and his former national security adviser.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.