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Trump ally Thomas Barrack acquitted of violating foreign agents law

Tom Barrack leaves U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Wednesday (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

NEW YORK — Thomas Barrack, a longtime friend of former president Donald Trump and chairman of his inauguration committee, was acquitted Friday of violating federal law by acting as a foreign agent without authorization while trying to help the United Arab Emirates influence the U.S. government.

Barrack, the billionaire founder of Colony Capital who has had a decades-long relationship with Trump, was accused of promoting talking points from UAE officials to members of the Trump administration. He also allegedly pushed propaganda for the UAE in appearances on major TV news networks and in published pieces.

After the verdict, Barrack descended a ballroom-style staircase into the lobby of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn to loud applause and cheers from his family and other supporters. Outside the courthouse, Barrack praised the jury and the justice system.

He said that “against all odds” the jury sorted through a complex case to clear him and his co-defendant, Matthew Grimes, on all counts.

“God bless America,” Barrack said. “The system works.”

Barrack and at least two dozen supporters left the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn to begin a celebration nearby. “I’m going to go have a drink,” he said with a wide grin after a reporter asked where he was headed.

Barrack’s acquittal is a high-profile loss for the Justice Department after several successful prosecutions of defendants on charges of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Rick Gates, all former Trump advisers, faced similar charges and were convicted.

At the trial, prosecutors said Barrack was motivated to keep the UAE happy because its sovereign wealth fund invested $374 million with Colony Capital from 2017 to 2018 and there was a possibility of more to come.

In his testimony, Barrack suggested his ties to Trump made him a target for federal investigators. He described admiring Trump but feeling disappointed that he did not adopt a more moderate approach in office.

Barrack’s attorney, Randall Jackson, said the government’s case misconstrued Barrack’s relationship with the UAE. He emphasized a lack of proof of an agreement between Barrack and officials from the UAE to work on their behalf. Prosecutors suggested an agreement was implied.

“You heard not one word during this entire trial about passing on sensitive intelligence,” Jackson said in his summation this week. “It never happened. Never materialized.”

Jackson told jurors the absence of a witness who could discuss the alleged arrangement between Barrack and the UAE “should be stunning” and that “not a single witness came into this courtroom … who had any personal knowledge of any relevant facts to the case.”

He said proof of an explicit agreement between Barrack and the UAE would have been required for a FARA violation to occur.

A jury at U.S. District Court in Brooklyn reached the verdict in the trial, which opened in late September, after roughly two days of deliberations. A spokesman for the Brooklyn federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the acquittal.

Barrack, 75, and his business associate Grimes, 29, were charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government without registering and conspiracy to act as a foreign agent without registering. Barrack faced several other counts related to lying to the FBI during an interview about his involvement with the UAE.

Past coverage: Government rests in foreign-agent case against Trump friend Barrack

Witnesses included two Trump Cabinet members: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The government’s case relied heavily on numerous text messages and emails involving Barrack, Grimes and UAE contacts. Jurors also saw a number of clips of TV interviews and written pieces that depicted Barrack praising UAE leadership.

The main intermediary for the UAE was Rashid Al Malik, an Emirati who was living in Los Angeles. Al Malik was also indicted but fled the country after learning about the investigation.

Prosecutors said at the trial that Barrack was successful in his efforts to meddle in foreign affairs on the UAE’s behalf. Also an adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Barrack allegedly succeeded in getting praise for “Gulf allies” in one of Trump’s campaign speeches. Prosecutors said that term was code for the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Prosecutors said Barrack also allegedly fed “insider information about foreign policy developments” in Trump’s campaign and in his administration to the UAE and he praised the national security for the tiny oil-rich country in nationally televised interviews. He even “assisted the UAE and its allies with White House meetings” in the early days of Trump’s term, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Harris said in his summation Tuesday.

The UAE is “an autocratic and authoritarian government ruled by a royal family rich in oil and gas and controls some of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the entire world,” Harris said.

Barrack had faced up to 20 years in prison on the top count that applied to him. Grimes had faced up to a decade in prison, if convicted on his top charge.

Grimes, who was mentored by Barrack and started working for Colony Capital as a teen, was accused of assisting Barrack in his dealings with the UAE. Attorney Abbe Lowell, who represented Grimes, said after the verdict that the case was an example of prosecutors overreaching.

“The problem with that is not everybody has the ability to fight back,” Lowell said.