What Did Thomas Barrack Know, and When Did He Know It?

Most of the media focus so far has been on the arrest of Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos, with Rick Gates’s arrest getting much less attention. Within the administration, however, things are a bit different.

Some White House advisers are unhappy with Thomas J. Barrack Jr., Trump’s longtime friend and chair of his inauguration, whom they hold responsible for keeping Gates in the Trump orbit long after Manafort resigned as campaign chairman in August 2016, according to people familiar with the situation. Barrack has been Gates’s patron of late, steering political work to him and, until Monday, employing him as director of the Washington office of his real estate investment company.

Thomas J. Barrack Jr. is a key, and yet perhaps unwitting, character in the Trump-Russia story. To understand why, we’ll need to go back in time.

Forty years ago, in Beirut, Lebanon, Mr. Barrack became an acquaintance of Paul Manafort. It’s interesting to know how each of these men found their way there. For Barrack, it was a kind of homecoming. His grandparents had immigrated to the United States from a part of Syria that is now located in Lebanon. After getting undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Southern California, Barrack landed a job with President Nixon’s personal attorney Herbert K. Kalmbach. This was the first of Barrack’s unsavory connections, as Kalmbach would later be convicted and jailed for his work on Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Barrack next landed a job with the Flour Corporation, which sent him to Saudi Arabia. There he had a fortuitous experience that paved the way for his great financial success in life.

Barrack became a lawyer, and his ability to speak Arabic led to an assignment in 1972 to go to Saudi Arabia to work on a gas deal. Barrack played squash with a local Saudi. Soon the Saudi brought his brothers. It turned out they were all sons of the king of Saudi Arabia. Barrack spent many hours listening to the Arabs discuss their world, which he said gave him “great respect for the society and community.”

The princes, in turn, hired him, and he became, as he put it, the American representative of “the boys.”

So, Barrack was in Beirut forty years ago working for the Saudi Royal Family.

Paul Manafort got there by a different route. His grandfather also immigrated to the United States, settling in Connecticut. His father served as the mayor of New Britain from 1965 to 1971. Manafort got his undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. He soon landed a job with the law firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease in Washington, D.C., where he was assigned to work with a Saudi construction company.

A roommate at Barrack’s Beirut apartment introduced him to Manafort, who represented a firm doing business with a Saudi construction company. They became close friends and, four decades later, Barrack persuaded Trump to hire Manafort for his presidential campaign.

When they met, these two men were both quite a lot more connected than they might have seemed as young Americans living abroad. Barrack had worked for President Nixon’s attorney while Manafort had helped James Baker round up the delegates President Ford needed to fend off a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan.

The relationship they forged would become more important than either of them could have imagined at the time. Barrack went on to become a billionaire real estate developer who would befriend and mentor Donald Trump. When Trump needed to round up the delegates he needed to win the Republican nomination in the winter of 2016, Barrack would recommend the services of his old friend Manafort who had provided the same service to President Ford in 1976.

How precisely this came about could be the most important question that Bob Mueller needs to answer.

Here’s how the Washington Post described it in an October 10th profile of Barrack:

Barrack supported Trump’s campaign, and shortly after Trump lost the Iowa caucuses, he reconnected with his old friend Manafort, a longtime Republican consultant.

“I really need to get to” Trump, Manafort said, according to Barrack. He told Barrack he wanted to work as Trump’s convention manager, helping him navigate what they expected would be a contentious affair.

Barrack, who had long been friendly with Kushner, as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka, said he wrote them an email urging Trump to hire Manafort.

The timeline there is almost uselessly vague, so let me clear it up. The Iowa caucuses took place on February 1st. A couple of weeks later, Barrack and Manafort had a meeting at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills where they discussed a packet of memos Manafort had prepared to put forth his credentials to handle the delegate fight. On February 29th, Barrack forwarded the packet to Trump along with “an effusive cover letter” that “described Mr. Manafort in terms that Mr. Trump would like, calling him ‘the most experienced and lethal of managers’ and ‘a killer.’”

This must have seemed like a great idea to Barrack, as he could make two good friends happy at the same time. What he almost definitely didn’t then realize is that Manafort had an ulterior motive and was a desperate man.

It’s been known for some time that Manafort was deeply in debt when he approached Barrack about working for Donald Trump. Specifically, the New York Times reported in July that Manafort owed as much as $19 million to a Russian oligarch with mob connections named Oleg V. Deripaska.

When Barrack and Manafort made their pitch to Trump, Manafort wrote “I am not looking for a paid job,” and Barrack reiterated the point in his cover letter: “[Manafort] would do this in an unpaid capacity.” It wouldn’t become clear until later why a man who owes millions to a mobbed-up Putin connected Russian oligarch would be looking to work for free.

On March 28th, Trump hired Manafort without pay. Soon after, this happened:

On the evening of April 11, 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump hired the political consultant  Paul Manafort to lead his campaign’s efforts to wrangle Republican delegates, Manafort emailed his old lieutenant Konstantin Kilimnik, who had worked for him for a decade in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

“I assume you have shown our friends my media coverage, right?” Manafort wrote.

“Absolutely,” Kilimnik responded a few hours later from Kiev. “Every article.”

“How do we use to get whole,” Manafort asks. “Has OVD operation seen?”

The initials OVD obviously stand for Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska. What Manafort was hoping is that by landing his position with Trump, he could somehow free himself from the millions and millions of dollars of debt he owed to Deripaska.

By late summer, it became clear that Manifort was too close to Vladimir Putin and he was fired by the Trump campaign on August 19th. But Manafort’s partner Rick Gates stayed on and gained influence. On Election Night, Gates and Barrack hit it off and Barrack hired Gates to help him organize the inauguration. This is the point at which we have some right to question Barrack’s judgment.

He knew why Manafort had been fired and it must have been a source of some embarrassment since he had so enthusiastically recommended him. But he had no obvious reservations about working with Manafort’s partner. And Gates would run into quick problems after the inauguration. At first, he landed a job working for America First Policies, a non-profit set up to help push Trump’s agenda. But he was quickly forced out because of his association with Manafort. Nonetheless, Barrack continued to befriend him, hiring him to work for his real estate business and dragging him to meetings in the White House. By June, the Daily Beast was picking up on the grumbling about Barrack’s decision-making:

After leaving the Trump-boosting nonprofit America First Policies in March—as former FBI Director James Comey officially announced an investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign team and Russian officials—Gates is now working directly for Tom Barrack, according to eight sources in and around the Trump White House…

…And when Barrack stops by to meet Trump in the West Wing, he has brought Gates with him, according to multiple sources familiar with the meeting. Late last week, Barrack was again at the White House, with Gates in tow, two White House officials confirmed.

In fact, it wasn’t until Gates was arrested yesterday that Barrack broke his ties with him:

Rick Gates, charged today with multiple counts of money laundering, tax fraud and illegal foreign lobbying, was fired by real estate company Colony NorthStar Inc., where he had been a consultant to Executive Chairman Tom Barrack.

Now, Barrack has been no stranger to scandal. In the Reagan White House, he worked for Interior Secretary James Watt who actually retreated to Barrack’s ranch after he was forced to resign in disgrace. He probably also arranged to have someone buy Edwin Meese’s house at an inflated price which cost him a promised job at the Commerce Department. More recently, he’s been accused in Italy of conducting a $190 million tax avoidance scheme. But it’s his decision to pitch Manafort to Trump that has cast the biggest pall over his career, and his almost inexplicable and unshakeable mentorship of Rick Gates is a close second that casts some suspicion on innocent explanations for his role in Manafort’s hiring.

Was he really an unwitting participant? Has he been as naive as he’d like us to believe? Why did he stick with Gates even after he’d been badly burned by Manafort?

I hope Robert Mueller can provide us the answers to these questions.

And then I want to know why Trump was seething when he saw Gates and Manafort had been arrested. Shouldn’t he have been happy considering all the legal and political problems they’ve caused him?

Maybe the president wasn’t an innocent victim here, either.

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