Jury hears opening statements at NYC trial of Trump ally

·3 min read

NEW YORK (AP) — A close ally of Donald Trump used his access to the former president to secretly help the United Arab Emirates try to gain influence over American foreign policy in a scheme about “power and money,” a prosecutor said Wednesday at a federal trial.

Under the direction of UAE officials, billionaire Tom Barrack — who chaired Trump's inaugural committee 2017 — provided the officials with sensitive inside information about the Trump campaign and administration, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta told a jury in opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn.

At the same time, the energy-rich U.S. ally poured millions of dollars into business ventures operated by Barrack and his co-defendants, Mehta said.

“When Donald Trump ran for president, the defendants saw an opportunity — an opportunity to use Barrack’s unique access to gain power and money for themselves,” Mehta said.

Barrack, he added, considered himself the “eyes, ears and voice of the UAE," which at one point asked him to find out who Trump was considering for secretary of state and other key Cabinet positions.

Barrack, 75, was arrested last year and released on $250 million bail. He has pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, obstruction of justice and making false statements.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Steven Schachter insisted there was no evidence that Barrack ever took orders from the UAE or betrayed his country by becoming a covert agent. Instead, his client was only pursuing legitimate business and political interests, Schachter said.

“Tom Barrack is his own man,” he said. “Everything that Tom did, you’re going to see that he did as his own man, making his own decisions.”

Before being indicted, Barrack — a friend of Trump for decades — drew attention by raising $107 million for the former president’s inaugural celebration following the 2016 election. The event was scrutinized both for its lavish spending and for attracting foreign officials and businesspeople looking to lobby the new administration.

The Los Angeles-based private equity manager was a key figure in UAE investments in a tech fund and real estate totaling $374 million. Prosecutors say that while he was nurturing those business deals, he convinced Trump to take meeting and phone calls with UAE leaders.

Other efforts included drafting a campaign speech for Trump that praised a member of the country’s royal family, passing information back to the Emiratis about how senior U.S. officials felt about a boycott of Qatar, and promising to advance the interests of the UAE if he were appointed as an ambassador or envoy to the Middle East.

Such an appointment “would give ABU DHABI more power!” Barrack wrote in one message obtained by federal prosecutors, referring to the capital of UAE, which commands tens of billions of dollars in wealth funds from its oil and gas deposits.

The U.S. government is seeking to present evidence at trial that Barrack was in close communication with the UAE’s director of national intelligence, Ali al-Shamsi.

“Al Shamsi was one of the most important UAE government officials that the defendants communicated with as part of the charged scheme, particularly given his senior role in UAE intelligence operations, and testimony regarding his role and responsibilities is central to this case,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.

The defense has sought to exclude evidence of Barrack’s lavish lifestyle, arguing in court papers that it would invite the jury to convict Barrack “based on improper emotional appeals and creates a substantial risk of class bias.”

Tom Hays, The Associated Press