Donald Trump's power broker

Story highlights

  • Barrack is perhaps the single person closest to the President-elect outside of his immediate family
  • Barrack revealed to CNN the inauguration has raised close to $90 million so far

Washington (CNN)Chase Manhattan Bank had seen enough.

It was 1994 and the land once known as "Trump City" was an embarrassing boondoggle, crumbling at the feet of an erratic namesake who took out $400 million in loans and seemed all too willing to default on more. Chase realtors could not see a path to black for debt king Donald Trump.
Tom Barrack could.
    "We're going to really, really attack Donald on this and take him down -- or you can help us," one Chase honcho told Barrack, a Los Angeles-based real estate titan with no ties -- beyond friendship -- to the deal. "You're the person who could solve it."
    Over the next seven days before Christmas, Barrack and his lieutenant, Bill Rogers, would jet from New York to Los Angeles, Taiwan, London and Saudi Arabia, begging billionaires to buy the loans and keep the bankers from Trump's throat.
    "He nearly killed me that week," Rogers says now, recounting the frenzied middle-of-the-night flights that kept the $4.5 billion West Side Railyards site from being Trump's burial ground. "There's one person in this world who has historically had a non-fighting way of working with Donald -- and being successful."
    Two decades later, that lifesaver is playing his most prominent role yet. Barrack is overseeing Trump's inauguration in two weeks -- a project that has so far raised close to $90 million. Once the festivities are over, Barrack, 69, is poised to wield enormous influence in Trump's Washington as the person perhaps closest to the new president outside of his immediate family.
    Over the next four years, a dozen people close to Barrack and Trump observed in interviews, Barrack is almost certain to reprise the middleman job he played during that West Side crisis -- as an inimitable powerbroker to the set of elites desperate to control him, and as a calming guardrail to the man who doesn't want to be controlled.
    "Most of the people around him are all vying for his attention, his acknowledgment or his approval," Barrack said during an interview this week at Washington's new Trump International Hotel, where he is recognized by name by staff and well-wishers who interrupt him with meeting or favor requests for Trump's team.
    That's his life these days: "It's like being the concierge or the sommelier of choice."

    Unlikely surrogate

    With the 6-foot-2 build of a shooting guard and the aphorisms of an inspirational speaker, Barrack admits he is not the likeliest Trump surrogate. With his refined, almost patrician image and the sensibilities of a Renaissance Man, the Arabic-speaking Barrack cuts a striking visage in the populist orbit that is ushering Trump to the White House.
    But friends and rivals alike note that Barrack, with a net worth of $1 billion and a network that includes Qatari princes and France's Nicolas Sarkozy, offers something that so few of the people battling for Trump's ear today can match: trust that, as his financial peer, he looks out for no one but Trump.
    It is a friendship forged in both the tumble of deals gone awry and the triumph of a shocking political upset. At every turn over the last two years, when Trump found himself against the world, Barrack on the other end of the line, dispensing frank truths while pleading to the offended that Trump meant no harm.
    When scores of women emerged to allege sexual misconduct by Trump this past October, Barrack asked him to write down what exactly made him upset in private, and at the same time promised to vouch for his integrity in public. When in need of a way to soften his image with Mexico, Barrack encouraged Trump to take a last-minute secret trip to Mexico and show he could blunt his rhetoric on the world stage. And when Muslim monarchs rang alarm bells at a policy meant to forbid their 1.6 billion adherents from immigrating to the US, Barrack urged Trump to retool his abrasive posture -- while back-channeling soothing words to his own Rolodex.
    By now, word of his influence has gotten around: Barrack serves as the connective fiber between his elite circles and the insular, Breitbart-infused Trump Tower. He brokered a meeting on climate change between Leonardo DiCaprio and the President-elect, and fields phone calls and emails from worried investors and ambassadors seeking reassurances from the next leader of the free world: "Tell me we're going to be OK," they implore Barrack.
    In a city full of lobbyists eager to play connector, it is the cabal of longtime Trump associates -- from Barrack to Roger Stone to Carl Icahn -- who are the new set of Washington greasers.
    "The way it used to be, you go to a lobbyist, you pay the lobbyist a bunch of money, and he takes care of politics," said Gary Winnick, a close friend to Trump and Barrack who now spends much of his time making similar introductions.
    But Trump campaigned vigorously against the lobbyist culture, and would care for something different, Winnick stressed.
    "Tom was there when Donald was getting his a-- kicked in the 80s and 90s," he said. "I don't think Donald has ever forgotten that."

    Born to immigrants

    Born to immigrants who owned a tiny Lebanese grocery store, Barrack made his fortune in distressed assets, or what he saw as low-risk, high-reward properties desperate for rehabilitation. He and Trump argued, bartered and caroused together. Barrack now fondly remembers deals where Trump "took me to the cleaners."
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    And over time, the two indulged in elements of celebritydom: Trump as a fixture of the New York socialite scene; Barrack as an investor in Hollywood film companies and as a Mr. Fix It for distressed celebrities -- he is credited with saving Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, and counts Rob Lowe as one of his best friends.
    But it was in the 1990s when Trump grew attached to Barrack, born just a year after him and with the emotional composure that even Trump's allies say he lacks. Over the years, the two would share tales of their marital struggles, friends say, and bond over their moments as classic tough guys.
    "They used to like to arm wrestle together," cracked Doug Manchester, a longtime Barrack pal. "Not literally -- but maybe."
    The stories are ripped from movies: When two intimidating men barreled down Park Avenue one spring day after pick-pocketing a woman's purse, Rogers recalls, Barrack delivered a rugby tackle he learned in college and held one of them down for 20 minutes. Soon after, the other culprit's half-dozen friends socked him in the nose, spilling blood over his cream-colored suit.
    "He's a man. He falls off horses going full speed, surfs waves. He's a stud," Laird Hamilton, a well-known professional surfer in Hawaii who rides aggressive waves with Barrack, said from his boat in Hanalei Bay. "We like the feeling of challenging the impossible."
    Barrack, many of his associates recounted, offers an eclectic spin on the quintessential "guy's guy." He jeers friends when they appear out of shape at the gym, but has chosen competitive polo -- not Trump's golf game -- as his sport of choice. He drinks alcohol, but grows his own wine at a 1,300-acre ranch he built near Santa Barbara, California, and spends his summers lavishly near Cannes in the French Riviera.
    His aggression doesn't extend to politics. A moderate Republican, Barrack has little interest in partisan combat and said he was occasionally dispirited by Trump's most corrosive rhetoric.
    His extemporaneous prime-time speech at last summer's Republican National Convention -- most memorable for awkwardly deeming his speech preceding that of Trump's daughter to be the "anchovy on Ivanka's caesar salad" -- featured another surprising moment. He told the crowd of Republican activists, who had encouraged speakers all week to "lock her up," that he had nothing negative whatsoever to say about Hillary Clinton.
    "Donald used Tom at the beginning to bounce ideas off of him. Tom didn't get into it for political reasons," said Nick Ribis, a top Trump casino executive who later worked for Barrack. Ribis marvels at how the two personalities co-existed. "Egos tend to get in the way — jealousy and egos. It wasn't that way with Donald and Tom."
    Despite his total lack of political experience, Barrack volunteered to hold Trump's first major fundraiser at his home, raising $7 million in a show of force that attendees at the head table describe as an emotional moment for the old friends. Some associates recall having never once before heard Barrack discuss politics before that evening.
    The soft-spoken Barrack describes the campaign as his own personal metamorphosis.
    "This is where I come from. That's me," Barrack, now the head of a $60 billion company, Colony Capital, said he thought as he soaked in Trump crowds across the country. "This is more me than the me now."

    Fundraising stumbles

    Barrack's adventure in cash-collecting was not without stumbles. Trump fundraisers say he dropped off the map after that event and for most of the campaign. And despite broadcasting widely that a super PAC he helped organize, Rebuilding America Now, had made a splash and took in $32 million this summer, that money was slow to materialize -- if it did at all. Barrack, over-extended and overwhelmed by looming campaign finance restrictions on what he'd be able to legally discuss with Trump, suddenly distanced himself from the group, which never lived up to its hype as Barrack watched Trump be massively outspent on television for nearly the entire race.
    Part of the trouble was that despite Barrack's place in the firmament of high society, sources said, he offered none of traditional fundraising relationships that Trump desperately needed. He knew nothing of the network assembled by Charles and David Koch, and though he scored a meeting with Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, he was unable to secure his confidence and a donation to his super PAC.
    The inauguration grants him something of a path to fundraising redemption. This time, Barrack won a $5 million check from the Adelsons, according to a person familiar with the donation. Barrack now talks to Trump every day about the ceremony, and it's that confidence of the President-elect that inauguration planners say gives him wide latitude over every last detail of the day, which will emphasize the military and "inclusiveness" rather than the traditional focus on celebrities.
    And for all Trump's fundraising struggles during the campaign, the inauguration is surprisingly well funded. The $90 million figure revealed to CNN came in large part from what Barrack called "a lot of low-hanging fruit" from Trump gadflies eager to make amends for their past stinginess.
    "Many of the establishment Republicans who were not involved in Trump Victory have now unified," said Elliott Broidy, one of the Trump campaign's most elite fundraisers and a vice chair of the Inaugural Committee. "That can be credited to Tom doing a phenomenal job articulating our President-elect's vision."
    He expects to keep at it well after the ceremony concludes. While Barrack has leaned into his role as Trump's filter to the outside world, he still dreams of an even bigger role. Perpetually sleepless and rarely in the same city for multiple nights, Barrack envisions himself making frequent trips to the Middle East on behalf of the administration's interests. He is already calling upon his far-flung network to help place US ambassadors in capitals overseas.
    But as Trump loyalists know, there is always the looming danger of overplaying your hand in Trump World. It's a lesson that Washington is soon to learn.
    "There's nobody bigger in Donald's eyes than Donald -- and don't try to compete with that," warns Winnick. "I'm not sure everybody else knows that, but Tom does."