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Ex-Trump Adviser Is Charged With Acting As An Agent For A Foreign Government

NOEL KING, HOST:

One of former President Donald Trump's old friends who also advised him has been charged with trying to steer American policy in favor of a foreign country. Federal prosecutors say Tom Barrack lobbied for the United Arab Emirates between 2016 and 2018, but he did not register as an agent of a foreign country. With us now is NPR contributor Ilya Marritz. Hi, Ilya.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: You've been covering the relationship between Barrack and Trump for a very long time. What is their deal?

MARRITZ: Tom Barrack is a 74-year-old private equity investor based in California. He's very successful. He was on the cover of Forbes once in 2005. They called him the world's best real estate investor. And in his personal style, he is smooth and gracious and self-effacing. He connected with Donald Trump a long time ago, in 1988, when Barrack was handling the sale of the Plaza Hotel and Trump wanted it. Trump bought the hotel for $390 million but ended up selling it a few years later at a loss. But listen to how Tom Barrack described that transaction at the Republican National Convention in 2016. He says it was Trump who got the better of the deal. Barrack said Trump told him...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM BARRACK: You just tell me the things that I should know and how to fix it, and I'll do this deal. He played me like a Steinway piano.

MARRITZ: So the two men became friends. Barrack became one of the few major business leaders to endorse Trump early in 2016. And that's the point in time where this indictment picks up.

KING: OK, and so what do prosecutors say Barrack did?

MARRITZ: According to the indictment, right around the time that Tom Barrack started raising money for the Trump campaign and vouching for Trump with the business community, he also embarked on a conspiracy to influence the candidates to take positions favorable to the United Arab Emirates. So in an energy policy speech in Bismarck, N.D., candidate Trump said he would take the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. He also made a pledge to, quote, "work with our Gulf allies." Prosecutors say the Emiratis got to see the text of that speech before the American people got to hear it. And they say afterwards, someone identified in the charging documents as Emirati Official 4 wrote to Barrack, congratulating him and said everybody there was, quote, "happy with the results."

Prosecutors say after Trump was elected, Barrack and the Emiratis continued to work together. They had a policy wish list they called the 100 days plan. Now, keep in mind, in this transition period, Barrack was Trump's inaugural committee chairman. He was raising money to pay for the parties and then threw a pretty big party for the Washington diplomatic corps the night Trump took the oath of office.

KING: OK, what has Tom Barrack said in response to these charges?

MARRITZ: A spokesperson gave us this statement. Mr. Barrack has made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset. He is not guilty and will be pleading not guilty. Barrack is now in detention pending a bail hearing. And prosecutors say he's a flight risk given his wealth and international connections.

KING: Now, do we know whether Barrack and the Emirates did influence U.S. policy during the Trump administration? Is anyone certain on that?

MARRITZ: It's not clear, but prosecutors say they tried. Here's one example. In 2017, there was this diplomatic crisis around the isolation of Qatar by its Arab neighbors. And the Emiratis allegedly told Barrack they were opposed to having a meeting at Camp David to try to resolve the standoff. Barrack got a message to the president's assistant, and in the end, that summit didn't happen. This is a seven-count indictment, but it really comes down to two things Barrack allegedly did wrong - lobbying for a foreign government without reporting the arrangement to U.S. officials and then lying to the FBI when he was questioned about it.

KING: NPR contributor Ilya Marritz. Thank you, Ilya.

MARRITZ: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.