Thomas J. Barrack also appears to be on trial for being a horrible boss.
That was the big takeaway Wednesday inside a federal courtroom in Brooklyn, where one of Barrack’s personal assistants, Matthew Grimes—who faces some of the same charges as his old boss—is laying the blame for the illegal influence campaign solely on Barrack.
Federal prosecutors said Barrack, who helped put together Trump’s presidential inauguration-turned-enrichment scheme in 2017, used his privileged position of power and influence to secretly lobby on behalf of the United Arab Emirates.
And Grimes may prove to be essential to the case.
The defense attorney for Grimes told jurors on Wednesday afternoon that the young man was merely the billionaire’s “gofer” who would “go for this and go for that,” picking up his boss’ coffee and making spa reservations while “el jefe”—as the young assistant would call Barrack in Spanish—was really the one meeting Arab royalty and cutting controversial deals.
The attorney even recounted one time when Barrack pulled Grimes away from his family over the winter holidays—forcing him to fly from California to Hawaii at the last minute just because his rich boss had forgotten to pack some gifts.
“A foreign agent is not the one who packs the luggage… and babysits the children,” attorney Abbe David Lowell told jurors during his opening statements, singling out Barrack as the true powerbroker.
The courtroom tactic is having the effect of forcing Barrack to defend himself on all sides.
The trial has barely gotten started, and it's already mired in talk of national security secrets and diplomatic entanglements. Barrack’s lawyers delivered opening statements to jurors that sought to minimize the idea that he betrayed the United States by schmoozing with the UAE, claiming that the country was “an important ally” whose soldiers fought and died alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When jurors stepped out, federal prosecutors objected to that portrayal, “which is not accurate,” they said.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan called out the way Barrack’s lawyers “appealed to their sympathy,” noting that “there was a strong suggestion the UAE was a good guy.” The judge also had to stop Barrack’s legal team from referencing classified materials, shooting down their intended plan to argue that Barrack is innocent merely because of the government’s reluctance to use any spy evidence possibly gathered by the Central Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency.
“You may not speculate there is any such information… that's not necessarily true,” Cogan said.
Previously, Barrack had been caught teaming up with another criminal Trump associate, disgraced Army Gen. Michael Flynn, to use their White House relationships to advance the interests of a nuclear firm called IP3. They were involved in a deal that would export nuclear energy technology to Saudi Arabia without the diplomatic safeguards that would prevent the authoritarian regime there from misusing that to develop an atomic bomb.
Barrack, who is Lebanese-American, has long been friendly with Saudi royalty dating back to his time as an attorney, and he was forced to apologize in 2019 for minimizing the Saudi crown prince’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
In the coming days, Barrack will be defending himself alongside Grimes, his former right-hand man at the real estate investment giant Colony Capital. Grimes, who started out as an analyst and moved up to vice president, is accused of playing along with the scheme to get cozy with the UAE through a secret corporate backchannel that should have gone through the State Department.
The Department of Justice investigation initially started with a seven-count indictment last summer, but a federal grand jury replaced that in May with an expanded nine-count indictment, levying additional criminal charges for lying to the feds.
That 55-page superseding indictment documented how Barrack also abused his influential perch by quietly tweaking the GOP platform at the 2016 Republican National Convention to avoid pissing off Saudi Arabia. According to the feds, Barrack intervened to keep Republicans from mentioning the Saudi royal family’s connection to the 9/11 hijackers.