Thomas Barrack, who was a close friend of former president Donald Trump's and led his 2017 inaugural committee, was arrested in California on Tuesday for “acting and conspiring to act” as an agent of the United Arab Emirates from 2016 to 2018.
Barrack is also accused of obstructing and lying to the FBI about his work on behalf of the UAE. He is charged along with two co-defendants: Rashid Al‑Malik, a UAE citizen, and Matthew Grimes, an American who worked for Barrack’s investment firm. Grimes was also arrested Tuesday.
Barrack is accused of using his position as a Trump ally and confidant to unlawfully “advance the interests of the UAE” without registering as a foreign agent. He is charged on seven counts, according to the indictment released Tuesday, including acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the attorney general, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, obstruction of justice, and four counts of making material false statements during a voluntary June 20, 2019, interview with federal law enforcement agents.
“This case is about secret attempts to influence our highest officials, and when that corrupt behavior was discovered, we allege Mr. Barrack went even further, obstructing and lying to FBI special agents,” FBI Assistant Director in Charge William Sweeney said in a statement. “In case it needs repeating, each of those bad choices is a federal felony, and each now comes with significant consequences — the first being today's indictment.”
Barrack is not the first Trump ally to be arrested for allegedly lobbying on behalf of a foreign government without properly notifying US officials. In 2017, then–special counsel Robert Mueller charged Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, and his business partner Rick Gates with violating what’s known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires people lobbying the US government on behalf of foreign powers to register and let the US know about their political activity; FARA prosecutions were once fairly rare. Manafort was ultimately sentenced to about seven years in prison, but he was pardoned by Trump, while Gates received just 45 days in jail after pleading guilty and cooperating with Mueller’s office.
The charges against Barrack, 74, do not include a FARA violation, he was charged with violating a similar but distinct statute. The charges are also unrelated to his work as the chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, which was reportedly under investigation by the Manhattan US attorney’s office in 2018.
Magistrate Judge Patricia Donahue ruled Tuesday that both Barrack and Grimes will be detained through at least July 26, when she will hold another hearing about potential bail conditions. The government said that it was working with Grimes' defense lawyer on a potential deal that would satisfy their concerns that he is a flight risk, alleging that three days after Barrack met with the FBI, Al‑Malik left the country and has not returned. Grimes' defense lawyer countered that his client had known about the allegations contained in Tuesday's indictment for "years" and had not tried to flee, but Donahue said she believed Grimes still "presents a serious risk of flight" and ordered him detained until his next hearing. In Barrack's case, the government said it needed more time to review potential bail conditions and the judge agreed to detain him as well.
Tuesday’s indictment out of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleges that Barrack worked with Al-Malik and Grimes on behalf of four unnamed UAE government officials to influence public opinion as well as the foreign policy positions of Trump’s campaign and, later, his administration. While Barrack was working with the Emirati officials, he was also seeking a position as either the US ambassador to the UAE or as special envoy to the Middle East, the indictment alleges (he did not receive either appointment).
As a part of that campaign, Barrack repeatedly promoted the UAE in media appearances with advice and talking points from the Emirati officials, prosecutors allege. Following one interview, on July 18, 2016, on an unnamed national TV network, Barrack emailed Al-Malik, “I nailed it … for the home team,” referring to the UAE, according to the Justice Department. In a Sept. 27, 2016, TV appearance he praised two of the officials by name.
Barrack also shared a draft of a campaign speech Trump was planning to give about US energy policy with the UAE officials and asked for their edits, which included inserting a line that would praise one of the officials by name. The Trump campaign removed the line, but Barrack convinced them to include a different line in which Trump would pledge to “work together with our supportive allies in the Gulf.” Trump delivered the speech on May 26, 2016, and pledged to “work with our Gulf allies,” earning Barrack praise from the UAE officials who congratulated him by email and said, “everybody here are happy with the results.”
Not long after Trump entered office, prosecutors allege that Grimes told Al-Malik that Barrack had succeeded in setting up a call between the president and Emirati Official 1. Prosecutors allege that Barrack set up "one or more" calls between Trump and the Emirati officials after the 2016 election and that he later lied to FBI agents about it. Three of the UAE officials working with Barrack also visited the White House on May 15 of that year, though the indictment does not allege that Barrack was involved in setting that visit up.
Barrack also sent a draft of an op-ed he was writing for an unnamed national media outlet to the Emirati officials for edits, which included removing a reference to “dictatorships” in the Middle East —“they don’t want to be also labeled as dictators,” Barrack was told according to the indictment. At their advice, he changed the word to “regimes.” In the op-ed, which was published on Oct. 22, 2016, Barrack also “praised the ‘brilliant young leaders’” of the UAE, the indictment says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Barrack was charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He is instead charged with violating a similar but distinct statute and acting as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the attorney general.
This story was updated after a judge ruled to detain both Barrack and Grimes pending another hearing on July 26.