Thomas Barrack, a longtime friend of Donald Trump's who chaired the former president's inauguration committee, was arrested Tuesday on federal charges that he acted as an agent of a foreign government.
Prosecutors said Barrack, 74, parlayed his close ties to the Trump White House to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates.
Along with Barrack, Matthew Grimes, 27, of Aspen, Colo., and Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, 43, a UAE national, are accused of acting and conspiring to act as agents of the Middle Eastern nation between April 2016 and April 2018. Grimes worked for Barrack at an investment management firm.
Prosecutors said the three defendants did not provide the required notification to the U.S. attorney general that they were acting as agents of a foreign government.
Barrack is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal agents.
"The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack's friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected President, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances," Mark Lesko, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's National Security Division, said in a statement.
Authorities said they won't hesitate to enforce laws that require disclosure of foreign influence campaigns inside the United States.
A lawyer for Barrack, Matt Herrington, said in a statement that Barrack "made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset. He is not guilty and will be pleading not guilty today."
Close ties to Trump
In 2016, Barrack was an informal adviser to Trump's campaign, prosecutors said, and then he chaired Trump's presidential inaugural committee. Once Trump was in office, Barrack informally advised U.S. officials on foreign policy in the Middle East.
Court papers said Barrack exploited his close ties to Trump as far back as the 2016 campaign when he inserted language favorable to the UAE into a speech about energy policy. Prosecutors said Barrack also asked for a wish list of policy goals at various points throughout the Trump administration, and they said he advanced the UAE's interests in television appearances and an opinion article.
Barrack was taken into custody Tuesday in California, but prosecutors in New York are in charge of his case. In a letter, they called Barrack a serious flight risk, given his wealth and access to private planes, and his ties to the UAE and Lebanon, neither of which have extradition treaties with the United States.
Barrack and Grimes were both ordered detained Tuesday. Alshahhi remains at large.
Barrack is the latest person in or near Trump's inner circle to be charged with federal crimes.
Among the growing list, the former president pardoned adviser Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, after they were convicted of crimes. And Trump's former personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is under active investigation. The FBI raided his office this year, seizing a trove of electronic evidence.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A close adviser to former President Donald Trump is facing federal charges. Prosecutors say that Thomas Barrack exploited his ties to Trump to win influence for a foreign government - in this case, the United Arab Emirates. NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following this story, and she joins us now with more.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So remind us. Who is Tom Barrack, and what kind of trouble is he in exactly?
JOHNSON: Barrack is a real estate investor with close ties to Trump. He chaired Trump's inaugural committee. But the new charges don't have anything to do with that. Rather, prosecutors say Barrack leveraged his influence with candidate then President Trump to win favorable treatment for a foreign government. Now, those kinds of influence campaigns inside the U.S. are supposed to be disclosed to the Justice Department. But the indictment says...
JOHNSON: ...Barrack never filed that paperwork. And when he was trying for a federal job, he left that work off the forms. When he met with the FBI, he lied about it, they say.
CHANG: But if this is a case about influence, what did Barrack allegedly do here to help the United Arab Emirates?
JOHNSON: Court papers say that Barrack really tried to cultivate influence from the very beginnings, even during the 2016 campaign, that he inserted language favorable to the United Arab Emirates in one of Trump's speeches back then. He told the UAE to create a wish list of policy goals for the whole Trump administration. He allegedly lobbied the White House to avoid a meeting at Camp David during this blockade in Qatar by the UAE and other Middle Eastern governments. He even made a bid to be the American ambassador and said it would be good for Abu Dhabi. He also spouted talking points on TV and in an op-ed, all according to the indictment.
CHANG: And I understand that prosecutors right now are arguing that Tom Barrack is a flight risk. Why is that?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Barrack was picked up in Los Angeles, but this case really is filed in Brooklyn. Prosecutors there want him detained in custody. They say he's really wealthy and well-connected with access to a private plane. He's a citizen of Lebanon and has ties to the UAE. Of course, both countries lack extradition treaties with the U.S. The government wants him moved to Brooklyn. Then they can argue before a judge, they say, about whether he can be released pending trial.
CHANG: And what is Barrack saying about all that?
JOHNSON: I reached his lawyer, Matt Herrington, via email. The lawyer says Barrack made himself available voluntarily to the investigators from the outset. He's pleading not guilty today. Barrack has a lot of resources at his disposal. It'll be interesting to see where this case goes exactly. I should mention prosecutors also charged an employee of Barrack's investment firm today.
CHANG: Wow. OK, well, before we let you go, Barrack is the latest in a number of people close to former President Trump who have now been charged with federal crimes. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JOHNSON: Yeah. It's a long list, Ailsa. Remember; before they received clemency, Trump adviser Roger Stone and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had been convicted of federal offenses. And Trump's former personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is still under active investigation. The FBI raided his offices this year and seized something like 21 different electronic devices.
JOHNSON: And Trump's one-time lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty and served prison time as part of a hush money scheme during Trump's presidency. The real question is, is this Barrack case the last shoe to drop, or is more coming?
CHANG: To be continued. That is NPR's Carrie Johnson.
Thank you, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.