A California billionaire known as an ally of Donald Trump used his testimony at his federal trial on Monday to question Mr Trump’s leadership on foreign policy, saying the former president had no idea of the dynamics in the Middle-East.
Tom Barrack is accused of using his ‘one-stop access’ as a longtime friend of Mr Trump to provide inside information about the Trump administration to the UAE to advance foreign policy and business interests of the United Arab Emirates.
Prosecutors say that while UAE officials were dating Barrack, they were rewarding him with millions of dollars pouring into his business ventures.
Barrack, the former chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, told a New York jury that he considered Mr Trump to be a “bold” and “smart” businessman, and had backed his candidacy as a political stranger who “could be a good thing for the system”.
However, he testified that he was later disillusioned by Mr Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and other divisive positions which he called “disastrous”.
He testified that some of his clients at his private equity firm “were upset that I was friends with the president.” Mr Trump, he added, was seen as someone who “couldn’t spell ‘Middle East’…it was a nightmare”.
Barrack said he made it his mission to convince Mr Trump to encourage the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to align themselves with Israel in order to bring stability to the oil-rich region. He also worked behind the scenes to try to get the former president to drop the idea of a travel ban for Muslims.
He said he took the position, “This is America. How can you ban a whole religion?
Barrack also testified that it would have been “impossible” for him to act as a foreign agent for a Middle Eastern investor in his business because other investors would object. Barrack said there is an intense vetting process to ensure fund managers do not have such conflicts of interest.
Investors “want to know that no one has an advantage, that they are all equal”, he said, otherwise “it would put off all the other investors”.
Barrack, 75, pleaded not guilty to acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, obstruction of justice and making false statements. His lawyers denied doing anything underhanded.
The Los Angeles-based billionaire has known Mr. Trump for several decades, from his days in property development. Barrack played a vital role in the 2016 campaign as a top fundraiser at a time when many other Republicans were avoiding the candidate.
The government closed its criminal case last week. Much of the evidence focused on emails and other return communications between Barrack and his high-level executives in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Prosecutors say those communications show how Barrack and his contacts devised a strategy to convince Mr. Trump.
The accused suggested on Monday that there was nothing nefarious about his constant contact with UAE leaders while Mr Trump took office. The interactions would have been a normal part of doing business with any country or government partnering with it in high-end real estate transactions using state-owned investment funds, he said.
The explanation came after Barrack described his rise to a high finance heavyweight from his humble beginnings in Southern California as the son of a Lebanese-born small grocery store owner. With his experience, the Arab said he developed a cultural “sixth sense” for building relationships with customers in the Arab world.
Before being charged, Barrack attracted attention by raising $107m (£95m) for the former president’s inaugural celebration after the 2016 election. The event was scrutinized for both its lavish spending and to attract foreign officials and businessmen seeking to pressure the new administration.
Barrack will continue to testify on Tuesday.