NEW YORK (AP) – A California billionaire known as an ally of Donald Trump used his testimony at his federal trial on Monday to question Trump’s leadership on foreign policy, saying the former president was clueless about the dynamics in the Middle East.
The defendant, Tom Barrack, is accused of using his “unique access” as a longtime friend of Trump to provide confidential information about the Trump administration to the United Arab Emirates to advance the UAE’s foreign policy and business interests. Prosecutors say that while UAE officials were consorting with Barrack, they were rewarding him by pouring millions of dollars into his business ventures.
Barrack, the onetime chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, told a New York City jury that he considered Trump to be a “bold” and “smart” businessman, and had backed his candidacy as a political outsider who “could be a good thing for the system.” However, he testified that he later grew disillusioned because of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and other divisive positions he called “disastrous.”
He testified that some of his clients in his private equity firm “were upset I was friends with the president.” Trump, he added, was perceived as someone who “could not spell `Middle East.’ â€¦ It was a nightmare.”
Barrack said he made it a mission to sell Trump on encouraging the UAE and Saudi Arabia to align with Israel as a way 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 Muslim travel ban.
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 one Middle East investor in his firm because other investors would object to it. Barrack said there’s an intense vetting process to assure that money managers don’t have such conflicts of interest.
Investors “want to know that nobody has an edge, that they’re all equal,” he said. Otherwise, “It would chill every other investor,” he added.
Barrack, 75, has pleaded not guilty to acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, obstruction of justice and making false statements. His lawyers have denied he did anything underhanded.
The Los Angeles-based billionaire has known Trump going back decades, since their days developing real estate. Barrack played an integral role in the 2016 campaign as a top fundraiser at a time when many other Republicans were shunning the upstart candidate.
The government rested its criminal case last week. Much of the evidence focused on emails and other back-channel communications between Barrack and his high-level leaders in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Prosecutors say those communications show how Barrack and his contacts strategized over how to win over Trump.
The defendant suggested on Monday that there was nothing nefarious about his constant contact with UAE leaders while Trump was taking office. The interactions would have been a normal part of doing business with any country or government partnering with him in high-end real estate deals using state-owned investment funds, he said.
The explanation came after Barrack described his rise to a high-finance heavyweight from humble beginnings in Southern California as the son of a small grocery store owner of Lebanese descent. With his background, the Arabic speaker said he developed a cultural “sixth sense” for building relationships with Arab world clients.
Before being indicted, Barrack 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.
Barrack is to continue testifying on Tuesday.