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Here’s Why Trump Crony Tom Barrack Was Acquitted of Spying for the UAE
Dispatches from the Tom Barrack Trial
Tom Barrack in front of the U.S. District Court of Eastern District of New York on July 26, 2021. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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After seven weeks at trial, longtime Trump ally Tom Barrack was acquitted today of all charges against him regarding the allegation he acted as an unregistered foreign lobbyist for the United Arab Emirates.
There are three main reasons I believe that the jury acquitted Barrack and his young associate Matthew Grimes.
The first is that the law at hand—Section 951, which emanates out of the Cold War period—is poorly written and basically unenforceable.
What 951 says is that, in order to be considered an unregistered foreign agent, that person must be subject to the direction or control of a foreign power. Now, in my view, as I’ve written before, the government needed to prove its case using scenes out of James Bond movie—recordings of secret meetings in the desert and so on. And the government just did not have that evidence. Prosecutor Sam Nitze argued that they didn’t need it. But the jury, it now seems clear, felt otherwise. Even the judge at one point told the government he thought their evidence was thin, calling it “right on the line of impermissible evidence.”
There is no way, I think, that prosecutors could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Tom Barrack consistently did anything at the direction or command of the UAE. First, there was the extremely problematic fact that Barrack—a businessman with huge experience in the region—personally believed in strengthening the relationship between the US and the UAE; he didn’t need any help or nudging from the UAE to come to that conclusion. Sure, once he’d gotten an “in” with their rulers, there was financial self-interest involved—which he completely copped to on the stand. But that doesn’t make proselytizing for the UAE illegal.
There was also the thorny problem of Barrack’s stance on the blockade of the UAE’s rival, Qatar—whose rulers have been Barrack’s biggest, longest backers, going back decades. While on the stand, Barrack testified that, in 2017, he told Trump and other senior White House officials that he strongly disagreed with the UAE about their blockade of Qatar. Steven Mnuchin, the former Secretary of the Treasury, corroborated that Barrack had told him the same thing.
Barrack testified that Trump was even rude to him when Barrack proposed Trump try to mediate the conflict.
Here’s what Barrack said:
He expressed to me -- I mean, he's the President of the United States and no matter what people think of him, he's super smart and he was equipped with all of the facts and he told me, he said: Look, I understand it, it's very complicated. And I said: Yes, Mr. President, I just want to remind you, as a friend, you are the President of the United States, the most powerful country in the world, United Arab Emirates is a great friend and a tiny little country with one and a half million people and my suggestion is this controversy is not good for you, have your people solve this problem with him and tell him to show up. He said: Well, it's a good thing you're not President of the United States, goodbye.
That’s not a nothing-burger.
So, even though prosecutors explained to jurors that a person needn’t be in agreement with everything they are told to do by a foreign power in order to be considered acting as as foreign agent, well…if you are openly aligned with a country those foreign powers view as an enemy—which Barrack was—can you also be considered as at their beck and call? It’s confusing, to put it mildly.
The second—and biggest—reason Barrack was acquitted was because of the way he handled himself on the stand. He may be a 75-year-old billionaire, but, in that court room, he spoke in a soft, self-effacing tone that was calm and sometimes humorous; he sold himself as someone who’d lived the American dream in a way that was really hard not to admire. A grandson of Lebanese immigrants who grew up poor, it was his smarts and hard work (his work day began at 4am and ended at 11pm, and he spent three weeks of every four on his plane, he said) that had made him not just rich himself but also the confidant of powerful people around the world.
There was also the fact that, although Trump was his long-time friend, in his own demeanor, Barrack came across as the anti-Trump: someone who cared for and was respected by people far further down the totem pole. It’s very rare in the world of real estate (about which I’ve written a book) to find a boss whose assistant would say of them what Barrack’s assistant Jessica Gibbs said about Barrack:
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Mr. Barrack and the executive assistant team?
A: Worked extremely closely together, he really relied on us. He's very -- is a wonderful man, wonderful boss, easy -- you want to help him even though it's a very demanding job.
That sort of testimony doesn’t count for nothing with a jury.
Barrack also took his time to explain to the jury in a very unpatronizing way about the customs of the Middle East—which he leant into rather than away—including how the fact that he was Trump’s close friend was helpful to him in their eyes when trying to raise money from their sovereign wealth funds. Even on cross examination, Barrack did not shy away from admitting that his closeness to Trump gave him an edge business-wise with the UAE rulers:
Q: And I think you said you don't want to be, you can't be just another deal guy. Right? You're showing up with your briefcase and your PowerPoint decks, like there's a lot of those deal guys trying to get in the room with Sheikh Tahnoun. Right?
Q: You’re trying to bring something else, something special, right?
Q: And one thing that made you special was your access to Donald Trump, right?
Q: Your longtime friendship with Mr. Trump and your understanding of him, correct?
A: My hope, yes.
Barrack had plausible explanations for even some of the dumbest things that were written in his text messages—namely the fact that he wrote at one point, “Donald’s running for President and I’m running for the money.”
Here’s how Barrack explained that:
Again, remember this is a business partner of mine and his comment to me is, basically, [H]ave you lost your mind? What are you doing with this guy on TV? I'm trying to respond to him that I'm not -- I haven't lost my mind and I'm doing this for the brand. The money is the brand, is the business. And I try and run back to some factual basis as fast as I can and get off the topic.
On cross examination, Barrack was also very careful to breakdown the more complex questions into simpler ones. If asked a compound question by prosecutor Sam Nitze, for example, he’d very politely ask Nitze to please ask him the question again but broken into simple concepts that he addressed head on or he’d say, for example, “There were three questions there. I’m happy to answer them one at a time.”
It’s also fair to say that Barrack’s calmness was at odds with Nitze’s energy. I actually thought Nitze’s summation was powerfully delivered because it was dialed back, but a few days earlier, on October 27, Judge Cogan spoke to the lawyers before the jurors entered to tell them several of the jurors had reported that they “feel the government is staring at them and they’re getting a little uncomfortable.”
If ever there was a warning that the jury was going to acquit, that might be it.
The third reason there was an acquittal, I believe, is Matthew Grimes himself. As I wrote earlier, even though Nitze told the jury in his rebuttal not to be swayed by “sympathy,” the image of the baby-faced Grimes sitting in the back of the courtroom, a few feet from his parents, was heart-rending.
So, too, in some ways, were the sometimes-juvenile texts delineating the nonstop and often mundane work Grimes uncomplainingly did for his boss—shopping for groceries to stock the private plane, getting capuccinos, taking photographs of all the luggage to ensure nothing got lost, photographing media interviews, setting up meetings, babysitting the kids (and yes doing some more intellectual work—helping with Powerpoints and writing for Barrack). When you put it all together, it spoke of well of Barrack that he took such an interest in Grimes and was careful to make it up to him when Grimes made sacrifices such as giving up his own Christmas in order to bring Barrack presents he’d bought for his family and then accidentally left behind. And it spoke well of Grimes that he so clearly revered Barrack and was prepared to go the extra mile with humor and kindness. There was never any sign of snippiness between the two.
Essentially what the jury saw in that courtroom was two men—one in the twilight of his career, one at the dawn—who had been good to their friends and good to people they worked with and who, amid intensely pressurized days and nights, had been good to each other. I just find it hard to believe that doesn’t count for something if, as a juror, you are being asked to consider sending two people to jail for years because of a relationship with a sheikh you’d never heard of before the trial began.
Barrack’s likeability was something that was reinforced to me by a former very senior Trump White House official who I promised to keep anonymous. This person phoned me as the trial was ending and had this to say:
Tom in the White House was always sort of a force for good...so, when people were pushing Trump, I’d [tell] Barrack: You need to tell him that this is not a smart thing for him to do. He would be the guy [who] would help…ease the problems that came up. Like he would be on the normal person's team in the White House.
So, in the end, what happened here was that Barrack (even despite his wealth) came across as “normal”—not as immoral or pompous or even so wedded to Trump that he couldn’t criticize him.
In fact, the statement Barrack made afterwards is extraordinary for its call for political unity.
Here’s what he said:
God Bless America, the system works. These 12 people, normal people with such complex, unbelievable facts in front of them, somehow fought through all of the quagmires to find Lady Justice with a torch burning, and a brilliant and committed Judge who protects them. Let's stop fighting with each other, let's stop the politicization. Whoever the President is, honor him or her and put all this garbage behind us. Tolerance and understanding is the magic elixir we need at the moment. That is what America is—the greatest country in the world that has given me, my family, and my heritage so much to be grateful for.
Now, will Trump pay attention to his words?
Almost certainly not. Trump—who tweeted his support of Barrack during the trial—will likely attach himself to this victory and personalize it as his—right as the midterms are coming and he’s due to announce his candidacy for president. So, politically it’s a win for him.
But let’s not forget: the Barrack trial is now over, but the Trump Org is still on trial for fraud. Jury selection is underway. Once the action starts, stay tuned to my Substack for insights from the courtroom. We shall see how it compares.