(Bloomberg) -- Even before Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, a foreign government turned to one of his close associates in an effort to gain influence -- and this time it wasn’t Russia.
Instead, according to an indictment of Trump’s former inaugural chairman Tom Barrack unveiled on Tuesday, the nation that sought such clout was the United Arab Emirates, a staunch U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf region. Prosecutors say the UAE relied on Barrack, a longtime Trump associate and real estate developer, to build a backchannel to senior U.S. officials.
Barrack and two of his associates were charged with failing to register as foreign agents for work they allegedly did to promote the United Arab Emirates’ foreign policy interests and increase its political sway in the U.S.
Barrack’s conduct “strikes at the very heart of our democracy,” prosecutors said, when he “capitalized” on his position as an outside adviser to the Trump campaign, at the direction of UAE senior officials and their intermediaries. Through Barrack, the Emirates developed a backchannel to the Trump campaign and then the administration, according to the indictment.
Matthew Herrington, Barrack’s lawyer, said his client is innocent.
“Tom Barrack made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset,” Herrington said in a statement. “He is not guilty and will be pleading not guilty.”
Barrack appeared in federal court in Los Angeles Tuesday through a video link. He was ordered held in custody until July 26, when a bail hearing will be held. His lawyers said they’re trying to work out a bail package prosecutors would accept for his release.
The UAE Embassy in Washington didn’t reply to a request for comment on Tuesday, an Emirati holiday.
Influence peddling is certainly not new in Washington, but instead of relying solely on registered lobbyists or its diplomats, the UAE turned to Barrack, who had known Trump for decades and was angling for a role as a special envoy to the Middle East, prosecutors said.
The indictment describes an unidentified Emirati official who at one point dismisses regular diplomatic channels for pushing the country’s policies, telling one of the defendants that “he knows ambassadors can’t do much and they are limited even if they are active.” Instead, they picked Barrack to be the UAE’s “only channel” to Trump.
That relationship yielded results, some small and some large, according to the charges. In one case, prosecutors detail excited messages exchanged among the defendants and unidentified Emirati officials when then-candidate Trump mentions Gulf allies in an energy campaign speech. At another point, Barrack said he was able to dissuade the Trump administration from holding a Camp David summit to try to resolve a dispute between leaders of the UAE and other Middle East governments with their neighbor Qatar.
“Barrack had advised the president not to get involved,” prosecutors said.
Unlike Russia, which engaged in a “sweeping and systematic” intervention in the 2016 election, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, the UAE was focused on raising its profile as a U.S. ally. The indictment calls Barrack’s actions a “betrayal” of the former president.
“Initially the Emiratis in 2016 were very concerned about the Muslim ban, but during those years -- between 2016 and 2018 -- they lobbied heavily to turn the Trump administration against the Qataris and support this political and economic boycott of Qatar,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Middle East official at the State Department.
In one of his first actions as president, Trump signed an executive order, in January 2017, banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the U.S. for 90 days. The ban was blocked by judges but Trump persisted with variations on the ban.
As questions arose about the behavior of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the aftermath of the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Emirates “saw an opportunity to be seen as the most dependable and moderate Arab state for the U.S.,” Miller said.
Read more: UAE Submits Request to Buy F-35s From U.S. After Israel Deal
The UAE has spent $101.6 million on U.S. foreign agents since 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, ranking it among the top 10 spenders. Its embassy in Washington paid $6.9 million to the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP last year for advice on issues including U.S. sanctions on Iran, export controls and possible arms sales and its termination of relations with Qatar, disclosures filed with the Justice Department show.
It has employed 16 firms over the last 18 months providing a wide range of expertise, including public relations experts, lobbyists specializing in defense and search optimization consultants.
What the Emiratis received from Barrack may have been more valuable -- they turned to him for insights into potential Trump nominees for key foreign policy roles, including secretary of state, secretary of defense and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and for help pushing their preferred candidate -- an unidentified U.S. congressman -- to become ambassador to the UAE.
The UAE and other foreign governments saw what could be a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to influence the U.S. when an inexperienced Trump was elected in 2016 and took office with seemingly few plans for governing, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute. He wrote about the outreach to members of Trump’s administration and Barrack’s apparent involvement in his book, “Qatar and the Gulf Crisis.”
“The general impression of those first few months was that this was an administration coming into office without a settled view on its policies, without any real attachment to any sort of fixed set of interests -- and they would try to perhaps shape those interests and those views,” Ulrichsen said in a telephone interview.
The State Department reported in June that the U.S. has $29.3 billion in active government-to-government sales with the UAE, including Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 advanced fighter plane, drones and Chinook cargo helicopters.
Since 2016, the U.S. has also authorized the permanent export of more than $11.3 billion in defense articles to the UAE, led by launch vehicles, ground vehicles, and military electronics, according to the agency.
At one point, the UAE sought help from the defendants to get the Muslim Brotherhood listed as a foreign terrorist organization, according to the court papers. The indictment also details how, at the UAE’s direction, Barrack downloaded an encrypted a message app to a mobile telephone that was purchased expressly for the purpose of communicating directly and securely with the UAE leadership.
“Remember that personalities, not institutions, have always been at the heart of relations between key Arab states and the U.S.,” Miller said. “Relations have always banked heavily on authoritarians who developed very close relationships with U.S. secretaries of state and presidents.”
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