FILE PHOTO: Colony Capital CEO Thomas Barrack speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File photo
Will the RNC return funds from alleged foreign agent?

Thomas Barrack’s links to the GOP go well beyond Donald Trump.

The recent indictment of Trump confidante Thomas J. Barrack Sr. for acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign country raised eyebrows as the Justice Department has rarely prosecuted such cases. Perhaps even more surprising, Barrack and his two accomplices were indicted for acting as unregistered foreign agents for the United Arab Emirates, a country with extremely close ties to policymakers, a lengthy track record of funding Washington-based think tanks, and an aggressive regional foreign policy ranging from the Horn of Africa, Libya, and Yemen to isolating its Persian Gulf neighbors, Qatar and Iran.

While the indictment focused on Barrack and his co-conspirators’ role in influencing Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign messaging and early presidency, the extent of Barrack’s influence in American politics goes well beyond Donald Trump. He has spent over $1.6 million on Republican campaigns since 2015.

CNN reported that political considerations influenced the Justice Department’s decision to hold off on the indictment until after the presidential election, noting that prosecutors “are discouraged from advancing politically sensitive matters ahead of an election.”

Barrack generously supported the election campaigns of Trump and GOP House and Senate members who were up for election over the past several political cycles, contributing $1,665,600 to Republican campaigns over the 2016, 2018, and 2020 campaign cycles, according to Federal Election Committee records reviewed by Responsible Statecraft.

The top recipient was the Trump Victory Committee ($875,600), funds that were used for Trump’s presidential campaigns and that, presumably, helped ensure the access to Trump that made Barrack such a valuable asset for the Emiratis, according to the indictment.

But Barrack’s second biggest campaign contributions went to the Republican National Committee and totaled $389,500 in the 2020 election cycle alone, funds that the GOP used to support campaigns for various candidates.

When asked if the RNC has any plans at this time, or in the event that Barrack is convicted of acting as a foreign agent, to return the $389,500, the party did not respond.

Holding on to six-figure contributions from someone who is currently under indictment for acting as a foreign agent of the UAE seems like something that a major political party might want to distance itself from, but Washington think tanks, politicians, and consultants are surprisingly comfortable with money linked to the UAE and other Gulf states.

For instance, former Senator Norm Coleman is a central Republican Party fundraiser who oversees the disbursement of tens of millions of dollars in contributions supporting Republican campaigns in each political cycle, via the American Action Network and its sister super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund.

Coleman is also a registered agent for Saudi Arabia, a job for which he has been remunerated  since 2014 and which he publicly defended in the wake of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, reportedly on orders from the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, in October 2017. 

On the Democratic side, WestExec Advisors, a consultancy founded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration, Michèle Flournoy, sold a minority stake of its business to Teneo, an advisory firm with multimillion-dollar contracts to represent clients in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  

And in the think tank arena, UAE funding is pervasive, accounting for over $15 million in contributions to think tanks between 2014 and 2018, according to research conducted by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, making the UAE the third largest foreign government funder of U.S. think tanks after Norway and the United Kingdom.

Washington’s institutions are awash in UAE and Saudi funding, with recipients facing little public relations or legal consequences. Barrack’s prosecution appears anomalous, but the Justice Department’s decision to pursue the case against him, albeit belatedly, is a warning that money from the UAE and other foreign sources may come with legal, as well as reputational, risks.

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