Donald Trump’s inaugural chair and a former Republican finance chief are the latest members of the former president’s inner circle whom prosecutors say secretly worked for foreign governments during Trump’s campaign and presidency.
In all, six top Trumpworld advisers and donors have been accused of secretly leveraging their access to Trump to benefit foreign countries including China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Justice Department prosecutors said former Trump inaugural committee chairman Thomas Barrack obtained political favors on behalf of officials with the United Arab Emirates in new charges filed last week. At the same time, they said, Barrack sought and secured hundreds of millions in investment capital from the country’s sovereign wealth funds.
Separately, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit accusing gaming mogul, megadonor and former Republican National Committee finance chairman Steve Wynn of working as an agent for the Chinese government, the first suit of its kind in nearly 30 years.
Previously, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his work on behalf of Turkey; Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort and former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates both pleaded guilty in 2018, admitting they acted as unregistered agents of Ukraine; and former RNC deputy finance chairman Elliott Broidy pleaded guilty in 2020, confirming he worked as an unregistered agent of Malaysia and China. Trump pardoned Manafort, Flynn and Broidy in his final days in office.
Two associates of Trump’s former attorney Rudy Giuliani, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, helped funnel Russian donations to American political campaigns and were convicted on charges related to the foreign straw donor scheme.
Top advisers in Trump’s orbit, said “American Kleptocracy” author Casey Michel, enjoyed “open access to President Donald Trump and the Trump administration to pursue policies that are beneficial to the Chinese, the Emiratis — whether it’s the Turkish government with Mike Flynn, whether it’s the post-Soviet space with Paul Manafort — I mean, just kind of on and on.”
On the campaign trail and in the White House, Trump was sharply critical of foreign influence, particularly from China. In 2016 and in 2020, he accused the families of Democratic presidential candidates of peddling influence to foreign interests.
“It’s a sad day in America when foreign governments with deep pockets have more influence in our own country than our great citizens,” Trump said at a June 2016 campaign event.
The rash of Trump-era cases is partially the result of the Justice Department’s stepped-up efforts to prosecute cases of hidden foreign influence, something it announced in 2019 under Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr.
“It’s a wonderful indication that DOJ is — obviously decades too late — but finally continuing to at least take the concerns about foreign lobbying and unregistered work as foreign agents seriously,” said Michel, who is also an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, enacted in 1938, requires Americans acting on behalf of a foreign government to influence U.S. policy to register and file disclosures with the Justice Department.
Stanley Brand, a law professor at Penn State and former general counsel to the House of Representatives, said FARA is a “very broad, ambiguous statute that laid in the dust” for decades until it was resurrected in the Trump era.
“There’s nothing unusual” about Americans working for foreign governments, Brand said. “What’s unusual is the department has decided to crack down.”
“Striking just how brazen”
The Department of Justice brought only seven criminal cases under FARA between 1966 and 2015. Since 2017, DOJ says it has prosecuted at least 10 criminal cases related to FARA enforcement. Among those cases, experts said, the Barrack case stands out for the brazenness of his alleged dealings.
Barrack, a longtime Trump friend and ally who made billions in the real estate world through his firm Colony Capital, was originally indicted in July 2021 on multiple charges of allegedly lying to the FBI and failing to register as an agent for his alleged work for the UAE. A spokesman for Barrack declined to comment for this story. Barrack has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and the case is expected to go to trial this summer.
The broadened indictment filed on Tuesday last week adds details to the case based on emails and other records obtained by prosecutors, showing the alleged foreign influence effort in granular detail.
“It is really striking just how brazen this entire setup was,” Michel said. “It is truly remarkable and really breathtaking to see just how direct these communications were.”
Federal prosecutors now allege Barrack did favors for UAE officials, including getting language changed in the 2016 RNC platform, and pushing for the Trump administration to hold off on a proposed summit between the UAE and Qatar. They also accuse him of making false statements about his alleged work with UAE officials in a 2019 interview with FBI agents.
Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said Barrack’s alleged effort to alter the Republican platform particularly helped demonstrate his power and influence early in Trump’s rise to power.
“That was particularly notable,” she said, “and that was probably one of his ways of establishing his bona fides, that he had the ability to influence the campaign and the Republican National Convention speech — and, therefore, would be in a good position to be able to influence the administration itself.”
No links to larger probes
The cases against Barrack and Wynn don’t appear to be linked to broader investigations of the Trump administration.
“The Department [of Justice] has decided, I think, based on all these allegations about foreign interference in the elections to really go after this stuff,” Brand said. “They’ve done it with a vengeance.”
Wynn has not yet responded to the DOJ lawsuit, which accuses him of holding multiple discussions with Trump and senior White House officials in 2017 to relay the Chinese government’s request to cancel the visa of a Chinese businessperson seeking asylum. It is the first lawsuit brought by the federal government in 30 years seeking to compel FARA compliance through civil litigation. Wynn did not respond to a request for comment.
“In both cases, there were financial motivations. It’s kind of like you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back,” said Canter, of CREW. “These financial ties give rise to the motivation behind why they were so solicitous and willing to carry the water for these foreign government interests.”
Despite the brazenness of Barrack’s alleged actions, experts said, it likely would have been legal had he disclosed his activities and his compensation through under FARA.
The lure of attracting foreign investment in return for political sway is not new for actors like Barrack and Wynn, who operated on the perimeter of the president’s orbit but didn’t hold official government positions.
More foreign entanglements?
The business activities of Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner also face scrutiny, following revelations by the New York Times that a Kushner-led business venture called Affinity Partners received $2 billion from a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman less than six months after the end of the Trump administration.
After a Saudi official asked questions about the investment, the Times reported, the sovereign wealth fund responded that the investment would help the Saudis “capitalize on the capabilities of Affinity’s founders’ deep understanding of different government policies and geopolitical systems.”
“I think he’s setting himself up in the same way that Barrack has set himself up,” said CREW’s Canter. “I think that’s something that he has to be extremely careful about.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the nonprofit Democracy for the Arab World Now, said Barrack’s alleged misconduct “is really not that different from Jared Kushner soliciting $2 billion from Mohammed bin Salman the day after leaving the White House, where he very ably served and represented Saudi Arabia’s interests.”
“This is a grave national security threat,” said Whitson. “It’s not enough that this wouldn’t have been a problem if Barrack had registered … officially as an agent.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.