The night Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination in July 2016, he was introduced by his daughter Ivanka Trump. She, understandably, spoke glowingly of her father as only a daughter (and perhaps only Ivanka) could. Before she spoke, the convention attendees watched a video about Trump’s history and qualifications. And before that, the last non-Trump-family speaker before the candidate capped off the entire convention; people in the convention hall and watching on television heard from a man named Tom Barrack.
Barrack is a developer with close connections to Middle Eastern leaders who offered a simple sales pitch. He outlined his extensive history with Trump in the world of business using that framework to describe Trump as a person and how his friend was well-suited to the task of building a “necklace of prosperity and tolerance around the world” from the jewels scattered when “globalism” shattered. Barrack, in essence, made the case also made by “The Apprentice”: This guy could make deals and reshape the world in his vision.
Barrack’s role with Trump’s political effort was robust. As Bloomberg News reported last year, he began as a friend and supporter who would speak with Trump by phone to offer his opinions on strategy. After Trump won, Barrack was tapped to lead the inaugural committee, raising more than $100 million for the events that began Trump’s presidency. And, of course, he gave that prime-time speech at the convention.
On Tuesday, Barrack made a different public appearance, at a panel discussion during the Milken Institute MENA Summit in Abu Dhabi. As first reported by Gulf News’s Ed Clowes, Barrack was asked about the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last year.
The death, he said, was a symptom of the West’s longtime misunderstanding of the region.
“The West is confused at the rule of law, doesn’t understand what the rule of law is in the kingdom,” he said, according to a recording Clowes provided to The Post. “Doesn’t understand what succession is in the kingdom. Doesn’t understand how can there be a dilemma with 27 million people in a population of which 60 percent are under the age of 20.”
“So whatever happened in Saudi Arabia,” he said later, “the atrocities in America are equal or worse to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia. The atrocities in any autocratic country are dictated by the rule of law, so for us to dictate what we think is the moral code there, when we have a young man and a regime that is trying to push themselves into 2030, I think, is a mistake.”
The young man to whom Barrack refers is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, believed to have ordered Khashoggi’s killing in a Saudi consulate. At another point, Barrack made a joke about the crown prince’s imprisoning of prominent Saudis in the Ritz Hotel for months on end.
More broadly, Barrack argued against the Trump worldview. The “corrupt hand of the West has been the primary instigator in the kingdom and in the resource curse across the region forever,” he said, driving economies in the Middle East to produce oil to meet Western demands — to meet the “unquenchable thirst of the West for oil.” That put those countries at risk in a world where climate change is forcing a shift away from fossil fuels.
“In a transition,” Barrack said, “bold action is required for bold places.” But, he said, the West was not “applauding” as it should, because “the West is confused. It’s always confused.”
What’s more, the Saudi hand was forced by the United States’ own policies.
“The fossil fuel shale phenomenon in the U.S. has now had a retreat from the Middle East, and the Middle East countries are now looking for another friend. And it’s very difficult,” he said. (The shale phenomenon refers to the fracking boom that has allowed the United States to import less foreign oil.)
“To me, it’s not the Khashoggi incident. It’s a consistency of policy,” he said. “We have President Obama, who was a great president, who had a theory that Iran and the Shias were really the road out of this eventually, and we switched our policy. And we had President Clinton and President Obama who had backed the Muslim Brotherhood.
“All of a sudden, in 12 months, we come up with a new theory . . . we go to another playbook,” he continued, referring to Trump’s inauguration, which he helped organize. “That leaves everybody amazingly confused, trying to figure out what are the touchstones of how you manage these relationships. And in a very tough neighborhood, you need friends. So if America’s not going to be your friend, then everybody’s going to reach out to another friend.”
The argument here is that the West is overreacting to Khashoggi’s death, misunderstanding first that an autocrat’s laws don’t match with the West’s moral code and failing to recognize that Saudi Arabia’s loyalty to the United States has faded. His criticisms of Trump aren’t new; he made them in an interview with The Post in 2017. But his striking remarks about American atrocities and the “corrupt hand” of the West are surprising for any American business leader — much less one so close to the president.
Barrack’s relationship with Trump-the-politician has not been a universally positive one. That Bloomberg News article details how his business suffered as his attentions and loyalties shifted. A memo obtained by ProPublica showed that Barrack’s company hoped to build business relationships by leveraging his proximity to the president. Last year, he was interviewed as part of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. That may have included asking about his work for the inaugural committee, which raised far more money than past administrations, some of it unaccounted for even as contributions from foreign entities have been questioned.
Earlier this month, Vanity Fair reported that a dinner Barrack held during the inauguration had an invitation list that included both prominent Trumpworld figures such as national security adviser-designate Michael T. Flynn — and a number of vaguely identified people.
"Among the list marked as confirmed were seven people described as ‘foreign ministers’ for Saudi Arabia, one foreign minister from Qatar, and one from the United Arab Emirates,” Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox reported. “They were the only people on the list who were unnamed.”
During the Milken event in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Barrack sought to endear himself to the audience.
“We as Arabs — I have the good fortune of having the DNA of an Arab, of Lebanese, and the gift of freedom of an American — but we’ve done a bad job as Arabs of communicating who we really are,” he said. “Especially to the West.”
Barrack, of course, has better access to prominent Western leaders than most.
Update: In a statement, Barrack offered an apology.
“The killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was atrocious and is inexcusable. I apologize for not making this clear in my comments earlier this week. I feel strongly that the bad acts of a few should not be interpreted as the failure of an entire sovereign kingdom. Having spent over 40 years in the region I can attest that the rule of law and monarchies across the Middle East are confusing to the West and support for change and rule of law is essential as the agony and mistakes of great change take place. I love America and am myself a product of American freedom, American leadership and the American dream, I have always believed and continue to believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world but our history and our policies in the Middle East have been confusing at times. I believe that as a nation we do constantly work to lead by example, and I believe that we still do. I apologize for not making it clear at the time that I consider the killing reprehensible.”