Trump ally foreign-agent trial under Mar-a-Lago cloud

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Tom Barrack emerged during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign as the genial face of outreach to the business community and moderate Republicans. In a convention speech that stood out for its positivity, Barrack likened his friend of 40 years to a jeweler who would restore America’s “polish.”

But it was another nation’s interests that the Colony Capital LLC founder would ultimately seek to advance once Trump was in the White House, prosecutors allege. Barrack was charged last year with acting as an agent of the United Arab Emirates in trying to influence US policy. He now goes on trial as Trump himself is under intense scrutiny for his handling of some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.

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Barrack, 75, has pleaded not guilty along with his assistant Matthew Grimes, who was also charged in the case. Jury selection kicks off Monday in federal court in Brooklyn, New York. Those picked may hear testimony about not only Barrack and Grimes but also Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the de facto UAE leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, also known as MBZ.

“The defendants are alleged to have used their access to the most powerful members of the government -- congressmen, senior executive branch officials, and even the president of the United States -- to provide information to, and otherwise assist, a foreign government,” federal prosecutor Ryan Harris said in a February court filing.

The trial is taking place in the wake of the Aug. 8 Federal Bureau of Investigation search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and amid renewed concern about how foreign policy and national security matters were handled by Trump, both before and after he left the White House. The special master appointed to review those documents for privilege issues will hold his first hearing Tuesday in the same courthouse where Barrack’s trial will be getting underway.

The connection is a potential worry for his lawyers, who have already raised concerns about animus toward the former president and his associates among potential jurors.

Fair jury fears

Others in Trump’s circle have expressed similar fears. Longtime Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg pleaded guilty to tax fraud in August in part because he was worried renewed attention on his boss would turn jurors against him. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon likewise sought to delay his criminal contempt trial for failing to comply with House Jan. 6 committee subpoenas because he worried the panel’s ongoing hearings would inflame jurors. The judge denied Bannon’s request, and he was subsequently convicted after three hours of jury deliberation.

The law at issue in Barrack’s case, referred to as Section 951, bars people from acting at the “direction and control of foreign nations” without notifying the US attorney general. Barrack is also accused of lying to FBI agents about his contacts with the UAE. He faces as much as 20 years in prison but would likely get a far lower sentence if convicted.

Prosecutors say that Barrack gave the Emiratis a preview of a Trump speech on energy policy, pushed the country’s preferred candidates for positions in the administration and shared non-public information about White House thinking on the Gulf rift with Qatar. According to the government, UAE sovereign wealth funds subsequently invested $374 million in a Barrack fund and a real estate project he backed.

Barrack’s lawyers claim the government has twisted innocent actions into sinister ones. They say the Lebanese-American Barrack, who had a great deal of experience doing business in the Middle East, was simply helping his friend understand the region. Barrack’s lawyers have said he introduced Kushner to MBZ and other Middle East leaders. While the judge hasn’t released a witness list, the defense has raised the possibility that Kushner, Mnuchin, Tillerson and even Trump himself could be called to testify.

According to Barrack’s lawyers, there’s no connection between his White House contacts and the $74 million Mubadala Investment Co. invested in a Los Angeles office tower and the $300 million Abu Dhabi Investment Authority put into a digital infrastructure fund. The defense filed a heavily redacted motion on Friday asking US District Judge Brian Cogan to exclude evidence of a $300 million investment because it would prejudice the jury.

Trump and his top aides “were well aware that Mr. Barrack was in contact with various Middle East leaders, since at various points these American officials utilized Mr. Barrack as a helpful source of information regarding the Middle East,” defense lawyers said in a court filing. “He was never an agent of the UAE.”

How the trial will unfold has been the subject of intense legal maneuvering over the past few weeks. Defense lawyers succeeded last week in getting evidence relating to the wealth, spending and lifestyle of Barrack, who’s free on $250 million bail, excluded from the trial.

“Evidence of too many summer homes would be highly relevant if Mr. Barrack were on trial for his success, but he is not,” they wrote in a motion.

Cogan agreed, ruling on Tuesday that the prosecution “overreached.”

But Cogan on Friday denied a defense bid to block evidence about the 2017 arrest of Republican Congressman Steve Stockman for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable contributions and using the money for personal expenses and political campaigns. Prosecutors claim that, at the time, Barrack and Grimes had been under a UAE directive to push for Stockman’s appointment as US ambassador to the Gulf state.

“Evidence of Stockman’s arrest is relevant to show that defendants were unable to follow through with a directive from the UAE because of circumstances beyond their control, as it makes it more probable that defendants’ failure to follow through was not because of willful disobedience or a change of heart, but rather due to impossibility,” the judge said.

Stockman was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but Trump commuted his sentence in December 2020.

‘Dislikable in every way’

Keeping jurors from thinking about Trump when they see Barrack may be the biggest challenge for his lawyers. Apart from his role as a major fund-raiser and 2016 booster, Barrack also served as his friend’s inaugural committee chair. He notably broke with Trump over his claims of a stolen 2020 election, but his lawyers urged Cogan to dismiss more than 30 people from the jury pool because they showed “a disqualifying level of bias against Trump.

Potential jurors said Trump “is the one publicly known person who they least admire,” called him “a crook” and regard him as “divisive, ignorant, racist, misogynistic, and dislikable in every way,” Michael Schachter, a lawyer for Barrack, said in an August letter to the court.

But Cogan largely rejected Barrack’s request, saying “merely some dislike of Trump” wasn’t enough reason to conclude potential jurors couldn’t be fair and impartial with regard to people associated with him. The judge allowed most of them to remain in the jury pool and will begin individually questioning them Monday.

The case is US v. Al Malik Alshahhi, 21-cr-00371, US District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

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