Why the Tom Barrack Indictment Matters
Charges for a close associate of former President Donald J. Trump have re-opened the can of worms that was his administration’s Mideast policy.
Down Tuesday went a rare thing: a genuine friend of Donald Trump’s.
The ex-president has racked up much in his seven-plus decades: riches and fame beyond imagination, business bankruptcies, an impossible White House tenure, wives, bitter enemies, one escape after another. Through a combination of circumstance and selfishness, “forty-five” can testify that it’s lonely at the top, or wherever it is that he is now. Like his successor, President Joe Biden, Trump has been on the American frontlines since the Seventies—both famous in their thirties. The downside of a late-life peak after a long, successful career? Many of your friends, often older owing to your early triumphs, are long dead.
For reasons of politics, Biden might not exactly mourn in public any longer the ex-segregationist senators he once eulogized, Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond. Career pols themselves, you could say they would have understood. But it’s also safe to say that the administration Biden is running is not the same as the one he would have if he had been elected in 2008, and particularly in 1988, the first two times he sought the nation’s top job.
Trump, coincidentally, also began flirting with a White House run in 1988. If he’d gone the distance, it’s safe to say his secretary of State would not have been a stunned Rex Tillerson, to whom Trump offered the job the day he met him. Nor would his national security advisor have been John Bolton, a man with whom Trump agreed on nothing, except perhaps that the world is a cold place. Nor would his top political mind have been Steve Bannon, a brief friend turned rival turned something else. The examples go on, but the most enduring figures in Trump’s orbit throughout his presidency were more often than not like the figure Bannon lost out to: son-in-law Jared Kushner, that is, someone Trump couldn’t suddenly dispatch with, because he was related to him.
Much has been made about Trump’s policy incoherence and personnel shortcomings in office, and these things were real, but the reality is also something simpler: The former president isn’t truly that close with many people. Most every person I know who has met or dined or worked with the president reports a similar tale: he just talks. As relayed by his most recent biographers—Michael Wolff, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, and Michael C. Bender—all of whom have released new, condemnatory books that Trump sat down for, Trump’s faith in his own verbal talent extends even to the fourth estate on which he’s so long waged war. Trump’s style is not the piercing, if sometimes dangerously counterproductive, intimacy favored by Bill Clinton. Or the everyman, ex-jock’s bravado of George W. Bush. Or the operatic, if cold, performances put on by Barack Obama. Trump is a salesman par excellence, and he keeps the counsel he trusts most: himself.
A seeming exception to this was Barrack.
A former Ronald Reagan aide from California, Barrack made a fortune in real estate and private equity, and has been there at seemingly every turn throughout Donald Trump’s tumultuous past three decades. He bought debt from Jared Kushner, among other entanglements with Trump and his revolving circle. By 2017, he was the chair of the inauguration committee for his old friend. And he was apparently at the center, or near it, of a farrago of decisions made by the 45th president, a politician who pledged to end “endless wars,” and made moves in that direction, but also in his own way, used American force and prestige to remake the Middle East.
The charges against Barrack—principally, that he operated as an unregistered foreign agent of the United Arab Emirates, and that he lied to federal investigators—are the latest legal problems for Trump’s world. Among the damned are: Barrack’s friend, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort; political consultant Roger Stone; apostate attorney Michael Cohen; among others all are familiar with. Trump pardoned Manafort, Stone, and Steve Bannon. Not so fortunate is Barrack. A twist: Trump’s Department of Justice is alleged to have sat on these indictments last year. For Barrack’s sake, maybe they shouldn’t have.
Barrack succeeds Manafort in acting as an alleged foreign agent; the range of statutes use to prosecute such cases were little enforced until the Trump era. Or as Max Abrahms, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute and a professor at Northeastern, quipped Thursday: “Should have just taken a DC think tank job.”
News of Barrack’s imbroglio obscures more than it reveals.
First, it raises political questions about the rationale Trump is operating under in seeking to remain atop the Republican Party. Following the January 6 riot and his exit from office, Trump has clearly not opted to go gentle into that good night, and retire from politics, perhaps betting that such a maneuver would spare him personally from prosecutors. Are further indictments—perhaps of his son, Eric, who effectively leads the family’s business—coming down the pike? Does staying in the game, as it were, lessen the likelihood that he is charged? No man is above the law, but Donald Trump is getting close, as any indictment of him would likely trigger understandable concern about de-stabilizing the American political system entirely.
Second, it raises questions about the nature of Republican realignment on foreign policy. Does the end of “endless wars” mean exiting the Middle East militarily, and passing on picking sides in a troubled region of swiftly declining national interest? President Trump tilted in that direction, with talk of and some move toward exiting Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a candidate pledging to be a “neutral guy” on Israel and Palestine. Or does the Republican realignment on foreign policy chuck the Bush doctrine, yes, but in favor of the U.S. staying involved in the region while losing all democratic sentimentality? That looks like backing traditional U.S. allies, such as the UAE, and targeting the regime in Iran for destruction. President Trump certainly tilted in this direction as well, even killing Iran’s famed commander Qasem Soleimani, in a daring gambit, before the full onset of COVID-19 and Trump’s ejection from power. Once Trump finally exits the stage, can both these tendencies continue to cohere? Moves such as the Abraham Accords and the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem are deeply popular with the Republican base. But so is getting troops out of the region.
Finally, Barrack’s troubles raise questions anew about a strange, seemingly forgotten period in the beginning of the Trump years, when the high command in Washington, or elements of it, were giving the green light on regime change in Doha. Qatar would have been the eighth emirate had they joined the fledgling federation last century. It’s something that’s never been forgotten in Abu Dhabi. The two, ridiculously splendid autocracies have never truly gotten over each other, and they have become bitter rivals. Joined by Gulf Cooperation Council allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others, Qatar’s troubles stopped in 2017 with a blockade, but one that endures to this day.
But the country has remained a bugbear on corners of the American right, an example of where Washington should take action… somehow. Doha is certainly a financier of the Muslim Brotherhood, and helps keep the lights on in Gaza, Palestine (with Israel’s consent, it should be noted). The ruling al-Thani family has, at minimum, a tacit friendship with Iran. With Al-Jazeera and other media ventures (a new one, Rightly, is focussed on American conservatives), the country’s public affairs efforts are vast, if somewhat bumbling, courting NeverTrump Republicans like former party chairman Michael Steele and Democratic sacrificial lambs like California Rep. Eric Swalwell, whose recent trip to the country has been pilloried almost nightly as of late by Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
The critique of Doha is that it supports political Islam, the kind that gave rise to the “Arab Spring” and was smashed most famously by coup d’etat in Egypt in 2014. Most regional experts contrast this brand of clericalism with the millenarian menace of the deadly extremist groups, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, or even the Taliban. But that the Muslim Brotherhood has, in the past, been a gateway drug to AQ, however, is beyond dispute.
So, Qatar is controversial, but so is helping to enact the “wishlist” of its rivals, as Barrack is accused, especially if the U.S. is to exit the business of picking sides in the region, something the last Republican nominee for president once seemed to warn against. Just this year, Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and others have beaten the drum asking why Al-Jazeera and Rightly have not registered as foreign agents.
Also unclear: Are Barrack’s problems the closing of a weird chapter, or the opening of a new arms race, of accusations of international subterfuge galore? A tendency, for sure, we’ve worryingly imported from the Middle East: our politicians are appearing far more often in court.