(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This week’s arrest of Tom Barrack, a real estate investor who chaired former President Donald Trump’s 2017 presidential inaugural fund, isn’t his first dust-up over foreign influence operations.

Barrack was arrested Tuesday on charges he secretly acted in the U.S. as an agent for the United Arab Emirates. The arrest follows multiple incidents where Barrack’s close proximity to Trump came under scrutiny for its potential to facilitate foreign interference.

Prosecutors claim Barrack and two of his associates engaged in illegal efforts to further the interests of the UAE in the U.S. at the direction of UAE government officials by attempting to influence policy positions of Trump’s 2016 campaign and administration.

Matthew Grimes, who worked at the Barrack-founded private equity firm Colony Capital, was charged along with Barrack. Colony worked closely with sovereign wealth funds in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, raising at least $1.5 billion in capital funds from the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth funds after Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination. Barrack’s firm also brought in money from the Abraaj Group, a controversial private equity firm in the UAE that collapsed and was fined a record $314.6 million for misconduct in 2019. 

The only Emirati charged in the indictment is businessman Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, also known as Rashid Al-Malik, who prosecutors say facilitated Barrack’s communications with UAE officials. Al-Malik left the U.S. in 2017 after he was interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. According to the Justice Department, he remains at large and hasn’t been arrested.

“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 statement

In 2019, The Intercept reported the UAE’s National Intelligence Service gave Al-Malik a code name and paid him tens of thousands of dollars a month to gather information about Trump’s Middle East policy and report back to UAE intelligence officials.

The incidents outlined in Barrack’s indictment are not the only times his role supporting Trump’s presidential bid and inauguration raised questions about potential foreign influence.

As Trump’s inaugural committee chairman, Barrack oversaw a record-shattering fundraising drive of $107 million, including at least one a mysterious $1 million donation from an unknown funder routed through a limited-liability company. 

In the heat of Trump’s 2016 election, Trump’s one-time campaign chair Paul Manafort and Barrack set up now-defunct pro-Trump super PAC called Rebuilding America Now, which spent $21 million to support Trump. The PAC faced allegations and investigations into whether they laundered illegal foreign money into the U.S. to support Trump in 2016, and whether they illegally coordinated with the Trump campaign using firewall entities

In 2018, federal prosecutors reportedly began probing whether foreign nationals illegally funneled donations to Trump’s inaugural committee and the pro-Trump super PAC in an effort to gain influence over American policy.

The inquiry reportedly examined whether foreign nationals from Middle Eastern nations — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — funneled money through straw donors to disguise their donations to Trump.

Major funders to the Rebuilding America Now super PAC included Cerberus Capital Management CEO Stephen Feinberg, the private equity executive whose firm trained members of an elite Saudi squad that killed Jamal Khashoggi.

Emirati foreign interests revved up foreign influence and lobbying spending reported under the Foreign Agents Registration Act during the Trump administration, disclosing more than $100 million in spending on foreign influence operations targeting the U.S. since 2016. 

Saudi interests spent more than $112 million on foreign lobbying influence campaigns disclosed under FARA during that time period.

Unlike the lobbying and influence operations disclosed in FARA records, Barrack never alerted the Justice Department of his actions pushing the UAE’s interests in the U.S.

Barrack and Grimes used a “secure messaging app” on burner phones to communicate with the Emirati officials, according to the new indictment. 

A 2019 report released by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee indicates Barrack also worked on efforts to help Saudi Arabia, a UAE ally, acquire nuclear power technology from the U.S. around the same time he allegedly illegally acted as an agent of the UAE. The House Oversight Committee investigation also found that Al-Malik, one of Barrack’s two associates charged this week, was acting on behalf of both UAE and Saudi officials.

The 2019 House Oversight report found that Barrack had tried to convince Trump to give him an ambassador role in the Middle East at the time he was privately advocating for nuclear transfers to Saudi Arabia.

The new indictment indicates that Barrack also helped UAE officials push their preferred candidate — an unidentified U.S. member of Congress — to become Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the UAE. 

Trump ultimately appointed John Rakolta Jr., a Republican mega-donor with no diplomatic experience, as ambassador to the UAE. Rakolta was confirmed on a 63-30 vote held after a nearly year-and-a-half delay, marking the first time the key position was filled by someone who was not a career diplomat. Rakolta was a major Trump fundraiser and donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund.

Leaked emails released in 2018 appear to show UAE officials’ attempts to make additional suggestions for appointments to Barrack but it is unclear whether Barrack actually relayed them.  

Barrack also appears to have played a role in removing language critical of Saudi Arabia from the Republican Party’s 2016 platform, the leaked emails showed.  

This week’s indictment also provides additional details into how Barrack allegedly inserted language praising the UAE into one of Trump’s May 2016 campaign speeches after Al-Malik ran a copy of the speech by Emirati and Saudi allies “to coordinate pro-Gulf language.” Saudi officials then passed suggested edits back to Barrack, who in turn conveyed them to Manafort, according to the new indictment and the 2019 House Oversight report. 

The Justice Department claims that in 2016 and 2017, Barrack and his associates “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.” 

After Trump’s election, Barrack allegedly advised the Emirati officials to create a “wish list” of foreign policy items they wanted from the Trump administration, the indictment says. 

Barrack’s activities also went far beyond typical lobbying efforts to influence U.S. policy, the indictment suggests, as Emirati officials turned to him for information about potential Trump nominees for key foreign policy roles from secretary of state to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Prosecutors allege that Barrack provided the foreign 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.’”

The charges were filed under the foreign agent statute, not the Foreign Agent Registration Act. It’s the same statute that was used to charge Russian agent Maria Butina in 2018 as well as other alleged spies.

Barrack and his associates’ charges of acting as foreign agents of the Emirati government fall under 18 U.S.C. § 951 — a separate criminal statute from FARA. Both statutes expressly prohibit “acting” as a foreign agent without prior notification or registration, but there are several key differences between the two statutes.

Section 951, the statute Barrack is charged under, covers non-political as well as political activities and is also limited to activity on behalf of foreign governments. This means 18 U.S.C. § 951 generally does not apply to agents acting on behalf of other non-government foreign interests such as companies or nonprofits. 

Sometimes referred to as “espionage lite,” the “typical conduct” covered under Section 951 is “espionage-like behavior, information gathering, and procurement of technology, on behalf of foreign governments or officials.” But Section 951’s definition of foreign agent is broad and can also cover other direct work for a foreign government or foreign government official, including efforts to influence U.S. policy. A 2016 Inspector General report found that Justice Department personnel even “frequently” confused the two statutes. 

Other Trump administration officials have faced scrutiny for failing to register as foreign agents, mostly under FARA. 

Manafort pleaded guilty of charges related to foreign lobbying in 2018. He served just under two years in prison and Trump pardoned Manafort shortly before leaving the White House.

Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, admitted to lying about foreign lobbying work and pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador in 2016. But Flynn, the only member of the Trump administration to be charged in Mueller’s investigation, later withdrew his plea and Trump pardoned him in 2020.  

In October 2020, Trump inaugural fundraiser Elliott Broidy pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate FARA in an alleged scheme to influence the Trump administration on behalf of a Malaysian fugitive at the center of a massive international money laundering conspiracy but was pardoned in January before Trump left office. 

California financier and Trump inaugural donor Imaad Zuberi was sentenced to 12 years in prison in February after pleading guilty to violating FARA and making illegal contributions after he failed to register as a foreign agent while working for the Sri Lankan government and lobbying “high-level U.S. government officials. Zuberi, who gave $900,000 to Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee along with his firm Avenue Ventures, admitted that he “helped facilitate” donations from foreign sources. 

And in May, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department notified Trump inaugural fundraiser and Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn that he must register as a foreign agent acting on behalf of China after allegedly lobbying Trump’s administration to deport a fugitive Chinese billionaire back to China. 

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is also under investigation over whether he may have acted as an unregistered foreign agent.

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Anna Massoglia

Anna first joined the Center for Responsive Politics in September 2015. She works with CRP’s foreign influence and FARA data as part of the Foreign Lobby Watch Project, tracks FCC and digital political ad data, and is responsible for CRP’s politically active nonprofit and nondisclosing “dark money” group data. She holds degrees in political science and psychology from North Carolina State University and a J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.

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