Why the charges against Tom Barrack matter
On April 28, 2019 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.
Something rare went on Tuesday: a real friend of Donald Trump.
The ex-president has amassed a lot in his more than seven decades: wealth and fame beyond imagination, business failures, an impossible term in office in the White House, wives, bitter enemies, one escape after another. Through a combination of circumstance and selfishness, Forty-five can testify that he is lonely at the top or wherever he is now. Like his successor, President Joe Biden, Trump has been on the American front since the 1970s – both famous in their 30s. The downside of a late climax after a long, successful career? Many of your friends, often older due to your early triumphs, are long dead.
For political reasons, Biden may no longer publicly mourn the ex-segregation senators he once praised, Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond. Career poles themselves, you could say they got it. But it’s also safe to say that the government Biden leads is not the same as he would have if he had been elected in 2008, and especially in 1988 when he was looking for the top job in the country for the first two times.
Coincidentally, Trump also started flirting with a run in the White House in 1988. If he had done it, his foreign secretary certainly wouldn’t have been a stunned Rex Tillerson, 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 has not agreed anything except perhaps that the world is a cold place. Nor would his political mind have been Steve Bannon, a short friend who turned into another rival. The examples go on, but the most enduring figures in Trump’s orbit during his presidency were mostly like the figure Bannon had lost: son-in-law Jared Kushner, that is, someone Trump couldn’t suddenly assign to because he was related.
Much has been said about Trump’s political incoherence and inadequacies in office, and those things were real, but the reality is also a little simpler: the former president isn’t really that close to many people. Almost every person I know who has met, eaten, or worked with the President tells a similar story: He just talks. As reported by his youngest biographers – Michael Wolff, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker as well as Michael C. Bender – who have all published new, judgmental books for which Trump campaigned, Trump’s confidence in his own linguistic talent extends even to the fourth estate, on which he has been at war for so long. Trump’s style is not the pervasive, albeit sometimes dangerously counterproductive, intimacy favored by Bill Clinton. Or the Jedermann, the bravery of the ex-jock of George W. Bush. Or the operatic, albeit cold, performances by Barack Obama. Trump is a salesman in perfect completion, and he keeps the advice he trusts most: himself.
Barrack was an apparent exception.
As a former advisor to Ronald Reagan from California, Barrack made a fortune in real estate and private equity and was seemingly at every turn of Donald Trump’s turbulent past three decades. He bought debt from Jared Kushner, among other entanglements with Trump and his circle. In 2017 he was chairman of his old friend’s initiation committee. And he was apparently at the center of, or near, a multitude of decisions by the 45th President, a politician who promised to end “endless wars” and took steps in that direction, but also used American force in his own way and prestige to reshape the Middle East.
The allegations against Barrack – essentially that he acted as the UAE’s unregistered foreign agent and lied to federal investigators – are the latest legal troubles for Trump’s world. Among the damned are: Barrack’s friend, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort; political advisor Roger Stone; renegade attorney Michael Cohen; know everyone, among other things. Trump pardoned Manafort, Stone and Steve Bannon. Barrack is not so lucky. A twist: Trump’s Justice Department is said to have sat on these charges last year. For the sake of the barracks, maybe they shouldn’t have done it.
Barrack succeeds Manafort as an alleged foreign agent; The range of laws used to prosecute such cases was barely enforced until the Trump era. Or as Max Abrahms, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute and professor at Northeastern, quipped on Thursday: “Should have just got a job at the DC think tank.”
News of Barracks’ mess hides more than it reveals.
First, it raises political questions about the reasons Trump operates to stay at the top of the Republican Party. After the January 6 riots and his departure from office, Trump clearly did not choose to gently walk off that good night and withdraw from politics, possibly betting that such a maneuver would save him personally from prosecutors. Do other charges – perhaps against his son Eric, who practically runs the family business – get to the point? Does staying in the game reduce the likelihood of being charged, so to speak? No man is above the law, but Donald Trump is close as any indictment against him would likely raise understandable concerns about completely destabilizing the American political system.
Second, it raises questions about the nature of the republican realignment in foreign policy. Does the end of the “endless wars” mean the military exit from the Middle East and the giving up of partisanship in a crisis region with rapidly decreasing national interest? President Trump tended in that direction, with talks and some steps towards leaving Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and as a candidate who promised to be a “neutral man” towards Israel and Palestine. Or does the republican realignment in foreign policy raise the Bush doctrine, yes, but in favor of the US staying in the region and losing all democratic sentimentality? It looks like they are supporting traditional US allies like the UAE and attacking the regime in Iran for destruction. President Trump certainly leaned in that direction too, even killing famous Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in a daring move before COVID-19 fully set in and lost Trump from power. Can these two tendencies continue to stick together when Trump finally leaves the stage? Actions like the Abraham Agreement and the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem are popular with the republican base. But also to get troops from the region.
Finally, Barrack’s problems raise questions again about a strange, seemingly forgotten time at the beginning of the Trump years, when the high command in Washington or parts of it gave the go-ahead for regime change in Doha. Qatar would have been the eighth emirate if it had joined the fledgling federation in the last century. That has never been forgotten in Abu Dhabi. The two ridiculously splendid autocracies have never really overcome each other and have become bitter rivals. Together with allies of the Gulf Cooperation Council Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others, Qatar’s problems ended with a blockade in 2017, which has continued to this day.
But the country has remained a bogeyman on the corners of the American right, an example of where Washington should take action … kind of. Doha is certainly a financier of the Muslim Brotherhood and is helping keep the lights on in Gaza, Palestine (with the consent of Israel, this should be noted). The ruling al-Thani family has at least a tacit friendship with Iran. With Al-Jazeera and other media outlets (a new one, Rightly, focused on American Conservatives), the country’s public affairs efforts are big, if somewhat clumsy, courting NeverTrump Republicans like former party leader Michael Steele and Democratic sacrificial lambs like California Rep. Eric Swalwell, whose most recent trip to the country has recently been pilloried by Tucker Carlson on Fox News almost every night.
The criticism of Doha is that it supports the political Islam that spawned the “Arab Spring” and was most famously shattered by Coup in Egypt in 2014. Most regional experts contrast this clericalism with the millennia-old threat from the deadly extremist groups al-Qaeda and the Islamic State or even the Taliban. However, it is undisputed that the Muslim Brotherhood was a gateway drug to AQ in the past.
So Qatar is controversial, but it is helping to enforce its rivals’ “wish list”, as Barrack is accused, especially if the US is to give up the party election business in the region, which the last Republican presidential candidate once seemed to warn. Just this year, Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and others hit the drum and asked why Al-Jazeera and Rightly did not register as foreign agents.
Also unclear: Are Barracks problems the conclusion of a strange chapter or the opening of a new arms race, the accusations of international deception galore? A trend that we have worryingly imported from the Middle East: our politicians are on trial much more often.