For the odd melange of foreign policy and nakedly transactional deal-making that characterized the Trump administration, Tom Barrack was a fit.
But from what prosecutors allege in an indictment unsealed on Tuesday and an accompanying memorandum demanding that he remain in federal custody, Barrack crossed the line. In doing so as brazenly as he allegedly did, Barrack has inadvertently helped reveal how foreign policy in the Trump administration’s early years began to form.
Barrack, a longtime Trump confidante and founder of investment firm Colony Capital, has been charged with crimes related to an alleged scheme from 2016-18 to illegally lobby the Trump White House on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. Prosecutors described him as an “extremely wealthy and powerful individual” who allegedly acted at the direction of senior UAE officials.
To some in the D.C. foreign policy community, the allegations fit with some of the more surprising things that came out of the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East.
First off, Trump came out of the gate in early 2017 hot on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a longtime adviser to secretaries of state from both parties, pointed out to TPM that Trump was exceptional in that his first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia.
“The Emiratis – and Tom Barrack was the embodiment of this – the Emiratis probably couldn’t believe how easy it was to establish relations with this administration,” Miller said. “They were pushing on a very, very open door.”
Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told TPM that UAE and Saudi leaders had “recognized” something of themselves in the Trump administration.
“They saw in him an American president who conducted politics in a way that they recognized the most,” Ibish said. “And he was looking to sell stuff, and they were looking to buy it, so there was a meeting of the minds there.”
Ibish added that for the first year of the Trump administration, it was unclear to many foreign nations who in Washington they should call to gain access and influence in the White House.
Barrack, Ibish added, appears to have filled that role for the UAE.
“It’s not just who do you call, but who can call on your behalf – that’s where someone like Barrack becomes a useful lobbyist, and an actual advocate,” Ibish said.
It’s not clear how much influence Barrack actually wielded within the White House, and how many policies Trump would have pursued regardless of the influence of his longtime friend and confidante.
Prosecutors, for example, detail how Barrack tried to prevent any U.S. action after the UAE and Saudi Arabia embarked on a political and economic embargo of Qatar in October 2017.
“They clearly used Barrack to try to scuttle any high-level effort by the Trump administration to get involved in moderating or brokering the politico-economic siege,” Miller said, adding that he was unsure if Trump, freed of Barrack’s influence, could have made a difference in the matter.
“It probably did influence policy to a certain degree, but since that rift was unhealable in 2017, I’m not sure it would have mattered if Trump, the self-styled greatest negotiator in history, had gotten involved,” Miller added.
From that standpoint, Barrack was less a cause of the Trump administration’s willingness to acquiesce than he was a symptom.
When it came to the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, for example, it’s unclear whether that may have been an example of anyone’s specific influence or instead general willingness born of the Trump administration’s own nihilism when it came to the idea of any interest greater than a whim of the moment.
“I spent 25 years in government, I believe there is something called the national interest,” Miller said. “But there was no effort to hide the fact that the national interest was being willfully, preternaturally subordinated to Trump’s domestic politics, his business interests, and his own sense of personal vanity.”
Prosecutors portrayed Barrack in the indictment as a man who fit into that world, using his Emirati connections to cash in on a White House that was a willing seller.
Miller went on to say that regional factors had made the UAE’s position favorable in Washington before Trump took office.
The country that, in 2006, was unable to buy a series of American ports due to massive public pressure found itself heralded 10 years later, when President Obama lauded the country’s relatively positive human rights record in the region and said the U.S. was “proud” to be the state’s partner.
“This process was in train well before the Trump administration got to Washington,” Miller said. “They just took it to a new and unprecedented level of acquiescence and cultivation.”