Tom Barrack, a longtime ally of Donald Trump, was acquitted on all federal foreign lobbying charges at a courthouse in Brooklyn on Friday.
The acquittal is a defeat for the Justice Department, which in recent years has launched a crackdown on individuals for undisclosed contacts with foreign governments because of potential national security risks.
Barrack was acquitted of acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the US and of conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent in the US. Jurors had deliberated for about 13 hours beginning on Wednesday.
Barrack, his former employee Matthew Grimes and an Emirati businessman named Rashid Al Malik were indicted last year and accused of acting as a secret backchannel for the United Arab Emirates. Prosecutors allege that Al Malik was secretly operating in the US as a UAE government agent. Al Malik fled the US shortly after he was interviewed by the FBI in 2018 and remains at large.
Grimes was acquitted of both charges against him: acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the US, and of conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent in the US.
“Matthew could not be more grateful that we have a system in which the truth and his innocence can be shown,” said Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Grimes. “However, this is just another example of overreaching and overcharging and the problem is not everyone has the ability to fight back. The system needs more supervision to prevent these kinds of cases from being filed.”
Barrack also faced one count of obstruction of justice and six counts of making false statements. He was acquitted of all seven of those counts.
“God Bless America, the system works,” Barrack told reporters after Friday’s verdict.
“These 12 people, normal people with such complex, unbelievable facts in front of them, somehow fight through all of the quagmires to find lady justice with a torch burning, and a judge who protects them,” he added.
When asked about the timing of the acquittal and midterm elections, Barrack said, “let’s stop fighting with each other, let’s stop the politicization, whoever the president is, honor him and put all this garbage behind us. This is what America is. The politics are just annoying to all of us.” Before walking off he said he was done with politics.
Prosecutors had alleged Barrack offered Emirati officials his access to Trump’s 2016 campaign, which he told Al Malik in an email that he “staffed” after recommending Paul Manafort for a role. In exchange, prosecutors said, UAE-controlled sovereign wealth funds poured $374 million into projects by Colony Capital, Barrack’s company. Barrack’s defense attorney Randall Jackson claimed that amount was insignificant – “less than 1%” of the company’s balance sheet.
During the trial, Trump posted on his Truth Social account calling Barrack a “highly respected businessman” and saying that he did not believe he was a foreign agent of the UAE. Barrack is a longtime friend of Trump’s, served as chairman of his Presidential Inaugural Committee and advised him as president.
Lowell said during his closing argument that prosecutors showed no evidence that Grimes made an agreement with a UAE official to work as a foreign agent.
“A person cannot become an agent by mistake or happenstance. He has to do so knowingly and intentionally,” Lowell said.
In the last five years the Justice Department revived a criminal statute that laid dormant for decades and brought numerous criminal cases under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA, against individuals who were lobbying for foreign governments or companies without disclosing it, as required by law, to the attorney general.
Top Trump allies Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Elliot Broidy all pleaded guilty to FARA-related offenses. Manafort and Gates were pardoned by former President Donald Trump.
But when the cases have gone to trial, the Justice Department’s record has been mixed. Greg Craig, a former White House counsel during the Obama administration, was acquitted by a jury of lying to the FBI about work he did for the Ukrainian government.
Barrack, who wasn’t charged under the FARA statute, was indicted on charges he acted as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. The statute, known as “espionage lite” by the national security community, is often reserved for cases involving spies.
Prosecutors need to prove the person had an agreement and was working under the direction and control of a foreign government.
Earlier this year a Mexican national pleaded guilty to acting as a foreign agent and admitted to traveling to the US at the direction of a Russian intelligence officer to run down information about a US informant.
But the foreign agent case of a former business partner of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn has boomeranged through the courts. He was found guilty by a jury only to have the trial judge throw out the conviction. The conviction was then reinstated by a federal appeals court, who sent the case back to the trial judge. He was granted a new trial.
The nearly two-month trial included mentions of Trump himself and some of his former cabinet members. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified that he never asked Barrack to conduct any diplomacy of behalf of the United States or pass any information on to a foreign government.
The defense team also called former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to testify about a meeting with Barrack in June 2017, when Barrack disagreed with Trump’s public comments supporting a blockade preventing goods from going into Qatar.
The defense tried to disprove the prosecution’s allegation that Barrack was actually a secret back channel for the UAE, noting that the UAE was one of several countries to cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar.
“He came in with the idea of telling me that he thought the President had made a mistake supporting the blockade and going through his reasoning why,” Mnuchin testified. “His position was clearly in support of Qatar.”
This story has been updated with additional details.