Tom Barrack, Trump's Longtime Friend, Comes Under More Scrutiny

Feb 20, 2019
Originally published on February 20, 2019 5:29 pm
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President Trump's longtime friend Tom Barrack has been getting a lot of attention lately, lots of it negative. Barrack was the chairman of Trump's Inaugural Committee, which is now under scrutiny by federal prosecutors. He was criticized for comments he made this month on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And this week, Barack's name came up in a report from the House Oversight Committee about a possibly illegal effort to transfer nuclear technology to the Middle East. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Tom Barrack was a lot less famous in the summer of 2016 when he introduced himself to the country at the Republican National Convention.

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TOM BARRACK: I'm the son of a very humble Lebanese grocer from Culver City, Calif. Where's California?

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HORSLEY: Now a wealthy real estate investor, Barrack recalled how in the 1980s he negotiated the sale of New York's Plaza Hotel to a guy named Donald Trump.

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BARRACK: I was a young pup. He was a big guy in New York at the time. He played me like a Steinway piano.

HORSLEY: Actually, Trump overpaid, and he lost the hotel within a few years. But he found in Barrack a companion who shared his taste for real estate, younger women and a celebrity lifestyle. As a young man, Barrack had worked in Saudi Arabia, and former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller says Barrack cultivated a network of contacts throughout the Middle East.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Smart guy, grew up speaking Arabic, did extremely well for himself in the business world but particularly in the Gulf.

HORSLEY: Some of Barrack's Arab business associates were alarmed during the campaign by Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric. But Barrack reassured them, and he set about making introductions in the region - first to Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and later to the president himself.

MILLER: Barrack emerged because precisely of his decade-old ties with the Saudis and the Emirates as the bridge that created these relationships.

HORSLEY: Trump's first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia, and he's made strong ties to the kingdom a cornerstone of his Middle East policy. Miller, who is now at the Wilson Center, questions the wisdom of that as the Saudi crown prince has pursued an authoritarian crackdown at home and a devastating war in neighboring Yemen.

MILLER: Over the last 18 months, we've accomplished very little, and we've allowed ourselves to be tethered to a country and an individual that is left a wake of disasters.

HORSLEY: U.S. intelligence agencies have also implicated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Speaking at a conference in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, Barrack appeared to defend the Saudi leader.

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BARRACK: Whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal or worse to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia.

HORSLEY: After an uproar, Barrack apologized, but he continues to minimize the role of the Saudi government in Khashoggi's death. And that's not the only spotlight where Barrack's been burned.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: New York authorities have issued a major subpoena. They're demanding documents about the president's inaugural committee...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Received a subpoena for documents from the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Seeking documents from Donald Trump's Inaugural Committee.

BARRACK: The committee behind Trump's inauguration raised a record $107 million. Federal prosecutors reportedly are now probing where all that money went, where it came from and whether any was raised illegally from foreign sources. A spokesman says Barrack does not believe he's a target of that probe. Around the time those subpoenas went out this month, ProPublica and WNYC published a memo from Barrack's investment firm drafted shortly after the inauguration showing how the firm might capitalize on its close ties to the new administration. Austin Evers of the watchdog group American Oversight says Barrack and colleagues were soon showing up in private meetings with top Cabinet officials.

AUSTIN EVERS: We're seeing him everywhere, getting the kind of access that, well, frankly, people would pay a lot to get.

HORSLEY: Evers notes yesterday, the House Oversight Committee listed Barrack as a key supporter of a plan to supply nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia despite warnings from whistleblowers that it might help the kingdom develop nuclear weapons.

EVERS: This is a five-alarm fire when it comes to ethics and potential improper influence on our national security.

HORSLEY: Barrack said through a spokesman he's ready to cooperate with the Oversight Committee. The spokesman pointed to Barrack's four decades of, quote, "respected relationships" in the Middle East. He also stressed Barrack has never held an official position inside the Trump administration. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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