What Tillerson Didn’t Say—And Why It Matters
Dispatches from the Tom Barrack Trial
Tom Barrack, a former advisor to former president Donald Trump, leaves U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in a short recess during his trial. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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I received a lot of puzzled messages about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's testimony last week in the trial of Trump crony Tom Barrack, who has been accused of acting as an undisclosed agent for the Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates.
What was the point of Tillerson’s testimony? many people asked. How did it help the government’s argument that Barrack was an unregistered agent for the UAE? In fact, many people pointed out that it seemed possibly to hurt the government’s case.
The confusion stemmed from two things.
First, Tillerson claimed he could barely remember Barrack; he said had just a “pretty fuzzy” memory of a brief phone call during which Barrack inquired about getting a diplomatic posting somewhere “to do with the southern hemisphere, Mexico, Latin America, something,” according to Tillerson. (I can tell you why Barrack told my sources, at least, he was seeking that position: He had recently gotten divorced and wanted to go somewhere he thought he’d meet attractive women.) The conversation went nowhere, said Tillerson. And Latin America is very far from the UAE.
Second, Tillerson said he definitely did not recall any conversations with Barrack about either the UAE or the controversial blockade of Qatar (home to the U.S. airbase in the Gulf), which had been instigated by the Saudis and the Emiratis in the summer of 2017.
The reason this is critical is that the Qataris are huge investors with Barrack, and Barrack’s relationship with the Qataris goes way back—far longer than his relationship with the UAE, which you can be sure this defense will emphasize. The defense is already beginning to do just that. There have already been several mentions of Barrack’s visits or meetings with various eminent Qataris, including the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, the former Qatari prime minister “HBJ,” and Mohammed Saif Al Sowaidi, the president of the Qatari Investment Authority.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that the defense argument will ask jurors to mull exactly how and why would Barrack “spy” for the UAE, Qatar’s rival, if he’s so close to the Qataris—and financially dependent on them.
Further, on Tuesday, after Tillerson was done testifying, Barrack’s attorneys produced an impressive list of the numerous foreign dignitaries—besides those from the UAE and Qatar—that Barrack disclosed to the State Department he had visited before Trump became president—as well as a head-spinning itinerary of the trips he took after the election. The whole list included visits with the president of France, the king of Spain, the king of Morocco—all presumably to show that, to a business guy like Barrack, dealing with foreign dignitaries was almost as habitual as breathing.
Someone who knows Barrack told me it was a great day for the defense, and it’s hard to argue with that. Prosecutors will unquestionably have a challenge in proving that what Barrack did in sucking up to the leaders of UAE was much different from what he did with all these other foreign leaders with whom he had done business for decades.
But back to Tillerson.
I believe the government knew what they were doing.
What Tillerson said on the stand was not helpful to Barrack—not for what he said as much as what he didn’t say.
Tillerson’s lack of recollection about Barrack and Barrack’s position on the blockade is critical—and something of a surprise, to several of my sources at least, who believed the two men did speak. If the secretary of state didn’t remember Barrack or Barrack’s position, then who from that White House is going to step up and say that Barrack was advocating for the Qataris when the blockade happened? (As far as my reporting goes, that is actually what happened: Barrack spoke up to Trump on behalf of the Qataris, though in vain. And that led, ultimately, to mistrust of Barrack by the Emiratis and the Saudis. But how will Barrack’s defense prove this? I am not certain, given what Tillerson said.)
The second is the government’s questioning of Tillerson about Jared Kushner and his position on the blockade (which Tillerson testified was different from his own skeptical, cautious position, though he did not get into specifics). Tillerson also said that Kushner was essentially running his own shadow foreign policy—and that Kushner’s maneuvering undermined Tillerson’s own work. What Tillerson didn’t say (presumably because he didn’t know it) was how tight Barrack, Kushner, and Trump were, long before they got into the White House.
The reason this matters and could be helpful for the government is because, as I reported in Kushner, Inc., Barrack and Kushner were old real estate allies who were closely aligned, foreign-policy wise. In Kushner’s case, as we know, his dealings have given the appearance, at least in hindsight, of being guided by self-interest. (I’m talking about the $2 billion investment in Kushner’s new investment fund by the Saudi investment fund PIF, which Kushner has said is unrelated to his pro-Saudi foreign policy, and also about the fact that a Canadian real estate investment trust whose biggest shareholder is the Qatari Investment Authority bailed out his father’s troubled building—at around the same time the U.S. withdrew its support of the blockade against Qatar in 2018.)
As for Barrack? He’s on trial precisely because it’s alleged by prosecutors that he ran an influence campaign for the UAE without disclosing it in order to benefit his fund.
You can see where the government is headed regarding highlighting the Kushner/Barrack alliance on foreign policy in the Middle East. Some of the texts read into the court record suggest that some Emiratis hoped Barrack might be the unofficial conduit to the Gulf states while Kushner would take on Israel (i.e., it was a double act, possibly sanctioned by the president, in opposition to his own national security advisors. Remember former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is on the government’s witness list):
Rashid al Malik: Did he like the plan that I suggested to him? Jarrod [sic] will take Israel and Tom, the Arabs.
Khalifa al Ghafli: Excellent. Good. You bring these ideas to bin Hammad and put them on paper so that he doesn't forget. You will receive all the support even if it is just headlines.
Trump, Kushner and Barrack were so close that I remember being told while reporting Kushner, Inc. that Kushner was being considered as Barrack’s successor post-Colony if Kushner left the White House. (I never confirmed this.) Further, I was told by multiple people that if Tom Barrack had wanted to replace Reince Priebus as chief of staff when Priebus left in the summer of 2017, he could have done so. Such was Trump’s admiration for Barrack. I was told, “[Trump] liked [Barrack] because Tom was so rich.” Further, Trump appreciated that Barrack publicly supported Trump on TV in early 2016, when most of Trump’s friends refused to give him money and were skeptical he could win. Barrack was viewed as the exception.
But all this coziness changed somewhere along the line—and we don’t know how or when, exactly. Kushner, not Barrack, ultimately ran the Middle East portfolio—all of it. And, according to Maggie Haberman’s new book, Trump lost patience with Barrack when Barrack suggested (at the behest of Kushner) that he accept he’d lost the 2020 election.
Where and why did things all go so wrong for Barrack? And what will this tell us about what went on behind the scenes with Kushner and Trump and their dealings in the Middle East? That last part is what really matters. It’s hard to believe, given the deluge of Trump stories we’ve had in the past six years, that one has even to ask that question, but there is still so much we don’t know that could yet prove critical as we head into the 2024 election…