NEW YORK — An ally and onetime top campaign adviser to Donald Trump sought to trade on his longtime friendship with the former president by covertly providing officials from the United Arab Emirates access to the highest levels of the U.S. government, federal prosecutors alleged on Wednesday.
That ally, real estate investor Tom Barrack, was accused by prosecutors of a “corrupt pursuit of money and power,” on the opening day of what could be a far-reaching trial related to foreign influence peddling in U.S. government affairs.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta argued that Barrack and his aide, Matthew Grimes, used Barrack’s “unique access” to Trump to act as the “eyes and ears and voice” of the wealthy Gulf nation during Trump’s 2016 run for president and through the beginning of his administration. They did so, Mehta said, in exchange for tens of millions of dollars’ worth of investments from Emirati sovereign wealth funds.
The trial kicked off on Wednesday in New York, in a federal court in Brooklyn. While it was overshadowed by other legal matters involving Trump, it will be the latest major legal test for the Justice Department’s aggressive new posture in cracking down on illicit foreign influence operations in the U.S. in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Barrack is the latest ally of the former president to face legal peril related to illegal foreign lobbying or trading access to Trump, a list that includes his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and GOP megadonors Steve Wynn and Elliott Broidy.
Barrack and Grimes are accused of acting as agents of a foreign government without notifying the Department of Justice. Barrack, who chaired Trump’s inaugural committee in 2017, is also facing charges of lying to investigators in the probe and of obstruction of justice.
A third defendant, Emirati businessman Rashid al-Malik, has also been charged in the alleged scheme but remains at large.
But the government faces a steep burden in convincing jurors that Barrack’s and Grimes’ actions were taken at the direction or control of the Emirati government, experts in the laws regulating foreign agents have said. That is especially true in the absence of any formal agreement or contract.
Prosecutors plan to argue that from 2016 to 2018, Barrack and Grimes sought to influence public opinion by suggesting Trump’s campaign singled out the UAE for praise in a campaign speech on energy issues. Barrack, meanwhile, would talk the UAE up as an important ally in media interviews, incorporating feedback and talking points from UAE officials and at times providing real-time updates.
They also allege the defendants shared nonpublic information about the Trump transition — and, once Trump became president, internal White House deliberations regarding issues important to the UAE — with their connections in the Emirati government, which went as high as Mohamed bin Zayed, who at that time was crown prince of Abu Dhabi and is now the UAE president and ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Barrack and Grimes have both pleaded not guilty to the charges, and their attorneys on Wednesday dismissed the notion that either man had agreed to act or had acted at the direction or control of any foreign government.
Barrack attorney Michael Schachter said it was “nonsense” that his client was ever acting at the direction or control of anyone but himself, asserting that Barrack “said and did exactly what he wanted” in the course of running his business, which included dealings with officials from numerous foreign governments in the Middle East and around the world.
At the same time, Schachter repeatedly downplayed the significance of what authorities laid out as part of Barrack’s alleged influence campaign, which Schachter characterized as the “most meaningless, most inconsequential acts.” He also noted that, at times, Barrack’s private advice to Trump ran counter to the UAE’s interests.
An attorney for Grimes, whom prosecutors sought to portray as Barrack’s “right hand man,” argued that the characterization was overblown, repeatedly describing his client as nothing more than an ambitious and hardworking assistant to Barrack whose job duties, in addition to drafting memos and doing research for Barrack’s investment firm, included arranging spa treatments and babysitting Barrack’s children.
Abbe Lowell, Grimes’ attorney, showed the jury photos of Grimes at various ages, including as a teenage DJ at the graduation party of one of Barrack’s children.
The trial, which is expected to last around a month, could shape how the Justice Department prosecutes future foreign influence. Those efforts have included an increasing reliance on the statute that Barrack and Grimes are charged with violating, a decades-old law that has traditionally been used to target espionage-like activities.
“The difference here is that the case is being used in a non-espionage context, which is a relatively rare way to use this particular law,” Robert Kelner, an attorney at Covington & Burling who advises clients on the Foreign Agents Registration Act, said ahead of the trial.
And with a mixed record in prosecutions of past high-profile foreign lobbying cases, some FARA experts warned that an acquittal in Barrack’s case could prompt the department to rethink its calculus on using the statute going forward.
“I think it will affect the posture of the department and going after unpaid influence activities,” said Matthew Sanderson, a partner at Caplin & Drysdale who co-chairs the American Bar Association’s FARA Task Force. “I think it will shut down — at least for a time — the department using [Section] 951 to go after basically shuttling between capitals,” as Barrack stands accused of doing.
Schachter hinted that Barrack’s defense could lean into the relative novelty of the charge, telling jurors that his client had not engaged in more stereotypical forms of spycraft like being caught transferring large sums of money to Swiss bank accounts or with “suitcases full of diamonds.”