Misadventure in the Middle East
Why the Tom Barrack trial is key to unlocking the single most dangerous and possibly self-interested corrupt piece of foreign policy in the Trump presidency
Thomas Barrack, a close adviser to former President Donald Trump and chair of his inaugural committee, arriving for a court appearance on July 26, 2021 in downtown Brooklyn. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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Over the weekend, I read the court transcripts of the first two days of the trial of former Trump Inaugural chair Tom Barrack, the Lebanese-American billionaire and Trump crony who has been charged with lobbying on behalf of the UAE without registering as a foreign agent (thereby profiting from his own investments with the UAE), obstruction of justice, and lying to the FBI.
Several fascinating takeaways:
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster are government witnesses—at least according to one of Barrack’s lawyers, Randall Jackson.
Jackson also told the judge that the “key” to Barrack’s defense is a first-person eyewitness account of what actually happened behind the scenes regarding the Trump White House’s initial endorsement of the blockade of Qatar (the gulf state which houses the U.S. airbase Al Udeid) by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt.
Here’s what Jackson told the judge:
Here, the specifics of what each of the countries wanted to do is very, very particularized knowledge and in this case, it is -- the actual way those events played out is key to our defense. We are actually, as Mr. Schachter previewed in his opening statement, we're going to get into it in the course of this trial exactly what Mr. Barrack's position was as it relates to the Qatar blockade and exactly what was the position of various people within the White House. … [T]he particulars of that, Judge, are actually key to our defense.
Now, the story of what exactly happened regarding the U.S. support of the blockade of Qatar started in June 2017 is critical for what it ought to reveal—not just about Tom Barrack and his business interests in the region, but also the business interests of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump and how they conflicted with U.S. national security in the region.
Remember: According to my 2019 book, Kushner, Inc. Tillerson and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis believed it was Kushner who gave the greenlight for the blockade—which occurred in June 2017, just days after the U.S. state visit to Saudi Arabia (the purpose of which, ostensibly, was to unite the Gulf states in their fight against terrorism).
According to multiple sources, Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster were horrified to discover that, in fact, the Saudis and Emiratis appeared to have a different agenda altogether: to diminish their wealthy rival Qatar with the newly gained support of the U.S.—or at least of its president and his son-in-law, Kushner, whose father, Charles Kushner, had just met with Qatar’s finance minister and been rejected after asking for a bailout on the Kushner’s troubled trophy building at 666 Fifth Avenue, which had a $1.4 billion loan on which the clock was ticking—and no buyers.
The problem with blockading Qatar, from a U.S. national security standpoint, was that Qatar is the home to the U.S.’s airbase in the region, Al-Udeid. When I was reporting Kushner, Inc., I was told that Trump did not actually realize this, nor was he aware that the blockade had happened until after the fact, which was why Tillerson and Mattis suspected Kushner as giving the Saudis and Emiratis the greenlight.
In his own memoir, Breaking History (which I reviewed last month), Kushner denies he supported the blockade, though he does acknowledge that Tillerson suspected him as the culprit, and he also says he knew of it in advance (which Tillerson and Mattis did not)—and tried to delay it.
Kushner also doesn’t mention the role of Tom Barrack in any of Kushner’s Middle East policy-making—even though it was Barrack who introduced Kushner to the UAE ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba and also to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. My sources have always said it was Barrack who supported bringing MBS to the White House in March 2017. According to the court transcripts, Barrack’s lawyer mentions the fact that Barrack was asked which entrance MBS (who was not yet then crown prince) should come through. (Barrack suggested the front door, but, in Kushner’s telling, the National Security Council staff wouldn’t let MBS drive up to the West Wing since he wasn’t technically head of state, so Kushner’s assistant Avi Berkowitz waited for him outside in the snow and then there was an issue with MBS’s paperwork and the Secret Service wouldn’t let him in until Kushner himself intervened.) It was also Barrack who, among others, encouraged the idea that the U.S. first state visit be to Saudi Arabia, rather than to a country with shared democratic values. But, as I reported, it was also Barrack who tried to intervene, in vain, on behalf of the Qataris, his chief investors, once the blockade of Qatar started.
Yet there’s only one mention of Barrack in Kushner’s entire book—which has nothing to do with the Middle East but is about helping a very young, pre-White House Kushner solve an early problem with 666 Fifth Avenue. Kushner quotes Barrack as saying something unctuous (Kushner quotes a lot of people as saying something unctuous about him) and helping him, rather than hurting him, with 666 Fifth Avenue.
It makes sense that the government would bring in McMaster and Tillerson as witnesses against Barrack. According to my eyewitness sources, both men, along with Mattis, were extraordinarily concerned about the national security threat of the blockade of Qatar and no doubt will talk about it and how they felt double-crossed by the Emiratis and Saudis when it happened. (It’s in the interest of the government prosecutors to paint the UAE as hostile to the U.S.—a tactic I’m told has not gone over well in the UAE, where they feel they are on trial rather than Barrack because, in their view, the government doesn’t have enough evidence to convict Barrack.)
But if Barrack’s defense is serious about painting a picture of whose allegiances were where and the real motivations of the top people in the White House regarding the blockade of Qatar, then—in addition to McMaster and Tillerson—Mattis, Kushner, Trump, Dina Powell, Steven Mnuchin, and Charles Kushner should all be called. Let’s hear all sides of this misadventure in the Middle East. It is, in my view, the single most dangerous and possibly self-interested corrupt piece of foreign policy in the entire Trump presidency.
Also called to be as a witness should be Ric Clark, the former CEO of Brookfield, the Canadian real estate income trust whose largest outside shareholder is Qatar. Clark should be called, because, as I wrote in Kushner, Inc., it was within weeks of the U.S.’s sudden withdrawal of support of the Qatar blockade in the spring of 2018 (after MBS had balked when Trump asked for money to help with rebuilding Syria, and the Emir of Qatar had quickly appeared and promised all sorts of financial support) that it was reported that Brookfield was approaching a deal whereby the Kushners would get a bailout on 666 Fifth Avenue. Not one person I spoke to in the real estate industry thought the ultimate deal—the Kushners leasing the building to Brookfield for 99 years, with Brookfield paying the entire rent upfront—made economic sense. Per the New York Times,Brookfield said the Qataris “had no knowledge of the deal before its public announcement.”
I rather doubt, however, that all of these people will be witnesses, either for the government or for Barrack. In as much as Barrack’s lawyers want to dwell on the blockade of Qatar as their defense strategy—because, their argument goes, if Barrack was advocating for Qatar, the nemesis of the UAE, then how could he be orchestrating an unregistered influence campaign for the UAE?—it will only be up to a point.
Barrack goes back a long way with Trump and Kushner in the real estate world. He knows that neither Trump nor Kushner has any interest in being summoned to court to testify under oath about their former dealings in the Middle East. As it is, the House Oversight Committee is still waiting for Kushner to produce his correspondence with MBS, in order to examine if the laws regarding doing business with former counterparts in the White House should be changed, given that the Saudis invested $2 billion with Kushner, who has little investing experience outside of real estate, after his time in the White House.
As for the government? Sadly, they are focused on the small fish (Barrack) and not on the big ones. Obviously, it’s not okay to breach the FARA laws, as Barrack is accused of doing, but, as one former senior White House official who has known Barrack a long time told me: “Tom may be a real clever businessman. He spent his life sucking up to countries in the Middle East and making money from those relationships. He just didn’t realize that you cannot behave the same way if you are connected to the U.S. government. He didn’t understand the rules.”
If this is true, then what a sad, pathetic, and unfortunately accurate reflection all this is of the dangerous incompetence of the Trump years.
It also means that Barrack’s is a trial we should all be paying close attention to…
Complex but stay on it. Perhaps describe further in detail what happened in the blockade and why/how this affected the operations of the air base. Try to find somebody or something that embodies the UAE position because that argument gets a bit lost in the complexity? Remind us how many service members are stationed at the air base and what their life was like under blockade by their commander in chief. Just some ideas!
Great piece Vicky -- threads here also get entangled with the Flynn-Barrack Middle East Marshall Plan to transfer nuclear technology to the Saudis. McMaster, Flynn's replacement, fired Derek Harvey, Flynn's NSC aide, for continuing to push the nuke transfer after Flynn's skids were greased.
The House Oversight Committee wrote a blistering report on this affair, which included among others, Iran/Contra ghost, Bud McFarlane. Barrack, looking for "opportunities", likely served multiple masters, including the House of Saud.