All Roads Lead to Putin
The Dramatic Close of the Trial of Trump Crony Tom Barrack
Tom Barrack, a close adviser to former President Donald Trump and chair of his inaugural committee, leaves the U.S. District Court of Eastern District of New York after a court appearance on July 26, 2021 in downtown Brooklyn. A protestor’s sign reads, “Tom Barrack: Another Traitor for Trump.” (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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This afternoon, the trial of Trump crony Tom Barrack drew to a dramatic close. You could hear a pin drop as prosecutor Sam Nitze—who, as I’ve written about before, has a flair for the dramatic—effectively scaled back his tone and his strident demeanor to tell the jury sotto voce that essentially it doesn’t matter how much they admire 75-year-old tycoon Barrack or agree with his opinions on the Middle East or how much sympathy they feel for 29-year-old Matthew Grimes for making the mistake of choosing the wrong mentor in Barrack. The law is the law, Nitze said—and Barrack and Grimes went “way, way over a line” by working as unregistered foreign agents for the UAE, according to the evidence, which is composed, at least partially, of dozens of damning text messages and emails.
Nitze also said repeatedly that Barrack lied in the courtroom, leaving me to wonder if that ultimately could leave the defendant open for additional perjury charges.
There was one moment that I found especially fascinating: when Nitze talked of how complicated it is when private citizens get muddled up in national security issues. He pointed out that yes, the UAE is a U.S. ally, but look at the recent photograph showing UAE President MBZ with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In other words: Allegiances shift, which is why we have protocols and a State Department. (Finally, I understood why the government had Rex Tillerson testify at this trial!)
At the mention of MBZ with Putin, Barrack put his head in his hands.
I suspect we haven’t heard more about Russia in this trial because the judge said at one point that he didn’t want to prejudice the jury with the colorful history of Barrack’s close friend and associate, the Republican operative Paul Manafort.
But the real reason Barrack and Grimes ultimately are on trial here all begins with the interviews—of Barrack and associates—for Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether or not Russia colluded with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. And Paul Manafort’s clandestine activities with Russian moguls and/or intelligence were at the heart of that. You may have forgotten this (I had, until I looked it up this weekend), but Mueller’s team discovered that Manafort planned to use his proximity to Trump in 2016 and 2017 to get Trump on board with a plan that would enable Putin to have a “backdoor” into Eastern Ukraine.
Just think about that, given what’s going on in Ukraine now.
Here’s a portion from the Mueller Report:
[O]n August 2, 2016, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort met in New York City with his long-time business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI assesses to have ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik requested the meeting to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel’s Office was a “backdoor” way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine; both men believed the plan would require candidate Trump’s assent to succeed (were he to be elected President).
And from later in the report:
First, Manafort and Kilimnik discussed a plan to resolve the ongoing political problems in Ukraine by creating an autonomous republic in its more industrialized eastern region of Donbas and having Yanukovych, the Ukrainian President ousted in 2014, elected to head that republic. That plan, Manafort later acknowledged, constituted a “backdoor” means for Russia to control eastern Ukraine. Manafort initially said that, if he had not cut off the discussion, Kilimnik would have asked Manafort in the August 2 meeting to convince Trump to come out in favor of the peace plan, and Yanukovych would have expected Manafort to use his connections in Europe and Ukraine to support the plan.
No wonder Barrack had his head in his hands. It’s one thing to be connected to a Middle Eastern leader the jury had probably never heard of six weeks ago when the trial started. But Putin? Right now?
It doesn’t exactly look great.
Manafort’s name has come up again and again in this trial because he’s a close buddy of Barrack’s. It was Barrack who brought Manafort into the Trump campaign and then, according to prosecutors, used him to get some friendly messaging about the UAE into a speech at the Republican National Convention. This is what, to me, is almost the worst sign of judgement I’ve seen from Tom Barrack (and there’ve been a few), given what we now know about Manafort’s extraordinarily dodgy track record. If you’ll recall, before Trump pardoned him in December of 2020, Manafort was convicted in one trial on five counts of tax fraud, one count of failing to disclose his foreign bank accounts, and two counts of bank fraud while he pled guilty in another to witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the United States. We are talking various frauds on a multi-million-dollar scale.
How likely is it that Barrack would have been unaware of Manafort’s dodgy pro-Putin plans? There certainly were an awful lot of texts and emails between the two men talking of their mutual affection and camaraderie—and how often Barrack wanted Manafort to go traveling with him.
On page 161 of the Mueller Report is Jared Kushner’s controversial December 2016 meeting—during the transition—with Sergey Gorkov, the head of the sanctioned Russian State-owned bank VEB, during which Gorkov gave Kushner a painting and a bag of soil from the town in Belarus from which Kushner’s family came . (This is the meeting the Russians told Mueller was about business to Mueller, while Kushner claimed it was about diplomacy. Mueller said there was no way, ultimately, to know which it was. But we do know now—more than anyone did back in 2017—that, for Jared Kushner, the line between diplomacy and business can be a bit blurry.)
Where did that meeting with Gorkov take place, according to the Mueller Report? At the offices of Colony Capital, Barrack’s firm in New York where, according to Mueller, “Kushner had previously scheduled meetings.” And, as we’ve heard over and over in the Barrack trial, the offices of Colony Capital are right next to Trump Tower.
What I now fear is not what we’ve seen in the Barrack trial but what we haven’t seen. How many other countries were actually effectively seducing Trump via his cronies? It certainly seems like it could have been more than just the UAE.
I understand prosecutors must be laser-focused to achieve results, so I understand why they haven’t gone down all these other rabbit holes. But the very fact they even exist is chilling. I wouldn’t have thought to say this before the weekend, but if you want some unputdownable bedtime reading right now, I highly recommend the Mueller Report. It’s a lot scarier now than it was when it first came out.