The illegal foreign lobbying charges brought against Tom Barrack on Tuesday punctuate a winding business and political career defined by his unique staying power in former President Donald Trump’s constantly shifting orbit of advisers.
A Southern California businessman and a former chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, Barrack is charged in a seven-count indictment with acting as an agent of the United Arab Emirates between April 2016 and April 2018. He is also charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements to federal law enforcement agents.
A spokesperson for Barrack has said he will plead not guilty to the charges. A judge ordered him detained following an initial court appearance Tuesday afternoon.
But Barrack’s relationship with Trump began long before the former President ran for office or found reality-television fame.
Success in the business world
“Tom was there when Donald was getting his a– kicked in the ’80s and ‘90s,” Gary Winnick, a close friend to Trump and Barrack, once told CNN. “I don’t think Donald has ever forgotten that.”
Born to immigrants who owned a Lebanese grocery store, Barrack made his fortune in distressed assets, or what he saw as low-risk, high-reward properties desperate for rehabilitation.
He first became friends with Trump in the 1980s during negotiations over the ownership of a hotel, an encounter he recalled during his 2016 Republican National Convention speech, wherein he called Trump one of his “closest friends.”
Still, it wasn’t until the 1990s when Trump grew attached to Barrack, who became an increasingly trusted adviser and sounding board as he found success in the business world.
After graduating from the University of Southern California and earning his law degree at the University of San Diego, Barrack founded Colony Capital, a California real estate and investment firm, according to his LinkedIn account. He’s served as executive chairman of the company since 1991.
Barrack’s business profile would grow alongside Trump’s notoriety, and by the time Trump began considering a White House bid, Barrack was well positioned to have considerable influence over strategy.
“Donald used Tom at the beginning to bounce ideas off of him. Tom didn’t get into it for political reasons,” Nick Ribis, a top Trump casino executive who later worked for Barrack, previously told CNN. “Egos tend to get in the way – jealousy and egos. It wasn’t that way with Donald and Tom.”
Public and private support for Trump
Barrack’s friendship with Trump was on full display throughout the 2016 campaign as he vouched for Trump’s character in the face of multiple controversies. CNN previously reported that when scores of women emerged to allege sexual misconduct by Trump, Barrack helped him strategize while promising to tout 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 the country 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.
“I have only amazing things to tell you about Donald,” Barrack said in his 2016 convention speech, “because this man is good enough, he’s tough enough, he’s smart enough and he’s well-versed enough to do it on his own merits.”
Their relationship culminated in Barrack’s role as chair of Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee, wherein he planned and coordinated most of the events around Trump’s 2017 inauguration.
But his high profile in Trump world brought considerable scrutiny, even as he remained an outside adviser.
In 2019, Barrack drew considerable backlash when he argued that the US does not have the moral authority to criticize Saudi Arabia due to its own record of “atrocities.”
When asked whether Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has damaged Saudi Arabia’s reputation on the world stage, Barrack began his answer with a joke before attributing public outrage over the killing in the US to a Western misunderstanding of the Saudi rule of law.
“As long as you don’t make me a guest at the Ritz,” Barrack quipped before moving into his response to a question from CNN’s Becky Anderson at the Milken Institute MENA Summit in Abu Dhabi.
Later that year, a report drafted by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee charged that Barrack had been leveraging his influence within the administration to push a lucrative business deal involving the transfer of US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia while, at times, standing to profit from the proposal.
Barrack’s influence in the Trump administration and how he may have influenced it was again called into question on Tuesday.
According to the released indictment, Barrack and two other men – Matthew Grimes of Aspen, Colorado, and Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, a UAE national – capitalized on Barrack’s status as a senior outside adviser to the Trump campaign to “advance the interests of and provide intelligence to the UAE while simultaneously failing to notify the Attorney General that their actions were taken at the direction of senior UAE officials.”
Barrack was directly and indirectly in contact with UAE senior leadership, according to the charges, and he referred to Alshahhi as its “secret weapon” to promote its foreign policy agenda in America.