A billionaire investor and decades-old friend and adviser to President Donald Trump, Thomas Barrack Jr., was arrested Tuesday after a seven-count federal indictment accused him of illegally and secretly acting as a foreign agent on behalf of the United Arab Emirates between 2016 and 2018.
In August 2017, Barrack — executive chairman of then-Colony NorthStar (now Colony Capital, headquartered in Los Angeles) — was a featured speaker in the Aspen Institute’s McCloskey Speaker Series, in which he offered “insights into President Trump’s vision for the nation,” according to the title of his talk. Barrack served as chairman of the former president’s inauguration committee and subsequently acted as an informal adviser to the administration regarding Middle East policy.
It was also in 2017 — three months later, in November — that Barrack purchased an Aspen home in Eagle Pines for $15.5 million.
But Barrack, 74, is only one of three defendants listed in the indictment. Additionally, Matthew Grimes, 27, of Aspen and Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, 43, a UAE national, are also accused of using Barrack’s “status as a senior outside adviser to the [Trump] campaign and, subsequently, to senior U.S. government officials, 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,” according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday.
Grimes, who was also detained Tuesday, worked for — and reported directly to, according to the Justice Department — Barrack “in a Los Angeles-based global investment management firm,” the release explains.
“During the relevant time period, Alshahhi worked as an agent of the UAE and was in frequent contact with Barrack and Grimes, including numerous in-person meetings in the United States and the UAE,” it continues.
In speaking with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson in 2017 during the McCloskey Speaker Series, Barrack laced his analysis of Trump’s leadership style and presidential strategy with fond anecdotes from throughout their 40-year-old friendship. He recollected, for instance, a time early in their respective careers, when Barrack needed to sell a high-value hotel from his demanding boss’ portfolio. Reluctantly, he met with Trump when the future president said he wanted to make a deal.
“He calls me up one day and says, ‘I want to buy the hotel. You tell me everything that’s wrong with the property and everything I need to do, and I’ll close the deal in 10 days. You tell me verbally now what it is, and I will live to that commitment,’” Barrack told Issacson. “I said, are you out of your mind? You want me to just tell you and you’re not going to sue me when something goes wrong? It was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen because he had me so obligated.”
It’s that same disruptive — and chaotic, as Barrack himself described it — style that he admired in Trump’s presidency.
“Amazingly, through chaos — through keeping the world off balance — you had a president who had come out totally against Islam. As a matter of fact had put border controls against Islam,” Barrack said at the time. “Who then convenes in Riyadh [Saudi Arabia] the first 58-country meeting of Islamic countries that coordinates an attempt for good Islam to intervene with bad Islam. Never before had that been done, and he turned it on a dime. But he turned it on a dime by saying, ‘Islam is bad.’”
Identifying himself as a Lebanese Catholic-American and friend and adviser to Trump, Barrack said when asked if he thought the then-president fully understood the historical context of American relations and policy in the Middle East that “the president gets it.” He went on to name Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE as “fantastic regimes, all pro-U.S.” but acknowledged that a regional conflict between the three posed problems for larger peace deals.
That conflict was also mentioned in the indictment, according to the Justice Department.
“In September 2017, Alshahhi communicated with Barrack about the opposition of the UAE to a proposed summit at Camp David to address an ongoing dispute between the State of Qatar, the UAE and other Middle Eastern governments, after which Barrack sought to advise the President of the United States against holding the Camp David summit,” the release details. “The summit never happened.”
But that wasn’t the first time the three defendants allegedly abused their influence on the president. In May 2016, Barrack allegedly inserted language praising the UAE into a campaign speech Trump would be delivering about U.S. energy policy. He then emailed an advance draft of the speech to Alshahhi, the indictment accuses, for delivery to senior UAE officials.
“Similarly, throughout 2016 and 2017, the defendants sought and received direction and feedback, including talking points, from senior UAE officials in connection with national press appearances Barrack used to promote the interests of the UAE,” the Justice Department press release notes. “After one appearance in which Barrack repeatedly praised the UAE, Barrack emailed Alshahhi, ‘I nailed it. . . for the home team,’ referring to the UAE.”
In fact, Barrack and Grimes, with help from Alshahhi, acquired a dedicated cell phone and installed a secure messaging application specifically for communication between Barrack and UAE officials, it continues.
In 2017 at the Aspen Institute, Barrack spoke passionately about U.S. ethical obligations to the Middle East, outlining a brief history and what he viewed as the primary concerns of the present day.
“We no longer need the Middle East. So the flow of oil from the Middle East to the western countries has stopped, and our relationship with them has stopped. Our interest now is saying we want to stop terrorism,” he told Isaacson. “But how do you stop terrorism when these regimes — if you take from Egypt to the Gulf, you have 65 million young people coming of age, to 18, within the next decade, without a job. You have two billion Muslims in the world. A military approach is not going to solve this problem.
“It’s up to us to give them a vision. ... Now, we leave them as a mistress in chaos. It’s not a very good story,” he continued.