MMA-Loving Billionaire Spy Boss Is at the Heart of Tom Barrack’s Trial

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(Bloomberg) -- Tom Barrack’s long friendship with Donald Trump has come up frequently at his trial for allegedly acting as a foreign agent, but the verdict could turn more on the Colony Capital LLC founder’s attempt to make a new influential friend.

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Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed, the younger brother of UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, or MBZ, chairs First Abu Dhabi Bank, the Gulf state’s largest lender, and the Royal Group conglomerate. The mixed martial arts enthusiast scored a notable US business success as an early investor in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

But Sheikh Tahnoon is also the UAE’s national security adviser, a role that stretches far beyond the similar-sounding White House position. Christopher Davidson, a Middle East scholar called to testify as an expert for the prosecution, said Sheikh Tahnoon was in charge of foreign intelligence, counterterrorism and domestic surveillance, making him “either the second or third most powerful person” in the UAE.

According to the defense, Barrack’s courtship of Sheikh Tahnoon with a lavish gift, shared interests and a possible introduction to actor Rob Lowe was all fair game in trying to win business for Colony. But federal prosecutors argue Barrack, 75, took things further and agreed to act at the direction of Sheikh Tahnoon and other UAE officials in trying to influence US policy through Trump’s campaign and then administration.

“Sheikh Tahnoon liked what you had to offer -- access, influence, information -- and you agreed to get it for him at the direction of the UAE in hopes of securing a longer-term business relationship?” federal prosecutor Sam Nitze pressed Barrack on the witness stand in federal court in Brooklyn, New York. Barrack denied Nitze’s assertion.

UAE sovereign wealth funds invested $374 million in Colony in 2017 and 2018, money prosecutors claim was a reward for his secret advocacy. Barrack denies any connection between the investment and informal advice he gave the Trump campaign and administration.

Assessing the exact nature of Barrack’s relationship with Sheikh Tahnoon is now up to the jury. Deliberations began Wednesday after six weeks of testimony.

Sheikh Tahnoon himself is not accused of any wrongdoing. Rashid Al Malik, an Emirati businessman who helped arrange Barrack’s meeting with the sheikh and allegedly acted as a go-between was also charged by US prosecutors but remains a fugitive.

The UAE embassy in Washington said in a statement: “The UAE does not comment on active cases that are before the courts.”

Barrack said on the stand that he first heard about Sheikh Tahnoon through Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who were investors in the UFC along with the sheikh. He decided that building a relationship with Sheikh Tahnoon would be an “amazing opportunity” for his firm.

“He’s one of the biggest businessmen in the world,” Barrack testified about Sheikh Tahnoon, “one of the wealthiest Middle Easterners of any country, one of the most powerful, which includes whatever his title was in government, whatever stature he had in the governmental entities.”

Barrack described his plan to court Sheikh Tahnoon through their shared hobbies, a bit of Hollywood glamour but also curiosity about his friend Trump.

Handsome Rob

He said he learned from Al Malik that the sheikh was a fitness fanatic who didn’t just invest in the UFC but practiced MMA himself as well. Sheikh Tahnoon was also an avid cyclist with a three-mile track behind his palace, Barrack testified, and the two shared a love of horses. A onetime champion polo player, Barrack noted that he still owned a 1,200-acre ranch and vineyard in Santa Ynez, California.

Barrack said he communicated with Al Malik in late April 2016 about setting up a meeting with Sheikh Tahnoon. He told Al Malik he was traveling in the region at the time with Lowe, a family friend, as part of a philanthropic venture involving Syrian refugee camps and suggested a chance to meet the West Wing star might appeal to Sheikh Tahnoon.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but Rob is more handsome, more charming, more interesting than I, and in the Arab world he was a big deal, so I thought this might be interesting for Sheikh Tahnoon to meet with him, and Rob was definitely not a Trump fan, so it kind of balanced things out,” Barrack testified.

But Al Malik responded that Sheikh Tahnoon wanted to meet Barrack alone. Barrack said concern about Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric may have opened the door for him, adding that his role as an early Trump backer likely made him stand out from others seeking UAE money.

A $6,000 Book

“Otherwise, I’m just another American financial hack looking for deals and money,” Barrack testified.

In their May 2016 meeting, Barrack said he and Sheikh Tahnoon talked about fitness, including how a diet had left the sheikh in “amazing shape” with perhaps just 2% body fat. They also talked about Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, which Sheikh Tahnoon called “very confusing.” Barrack said he agreed, suggesting Sheikh Tahnoon should talk to Trump and inviting him to stay at his own “simple cowboy ranch” on a future visit to the US.

Afterward, Barrack texted his assistant, Matthew Grimes, who is also on trial for allegedly acting as an UAE agent, that the “meeting was amazing.” He had also tasked Grimes with finding a first edition of the Raswan Index and Handbook for Arabian Breeders, a celebrated guide to Arabian horses, to present to Sheikh Tahnoon as a gift. Barrack paid $6,000 for the book and sent it to Sheikh Tahnoon with a personalized note, which he acknowledged at trial was actually written by an employee.

According to prosecutors, after that meeting, Barrack began helping UAE officials in various ways, including inserting Emirati-backed language in a Trump speech on energy policy, funneling information about who the president might appoint for key jobs, and talking up the Gulf nation in TV interviews. Barrack denied all of those allegations on the stand.

Barrack testified that he didn’t hear from Sheikh Tahnoon again until August 2016, when they met in Tangiers, Morocco, where the sheikh kept a yacht. They drove to the nearby desert for a ride with professional cyclists in which Sheikh Tahnoon’s group took off and rode about twice as far as Barrack did in 90 minutes.

After the ride, they spoke aboard Sheikh Tahnoon’s yacht about food security in Morocco and a Colony proposal to invest in Dole Plc, the fruit and vegetable producer, Barrack said. Later the same day, Sheikh Tahnoon introduced Barrack to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

Private Equity Envy

“We hit the jackpot in the Middle East,” Barrack emailed to a colleague at Colony about his meeting Sheikh Tahnoon and MBS on the same day. Barrack told jurors the meetings could unlock sovereign wealth investments for the firm.

“If you took the top 100 private equity firms, 15 or 20 of them have ownership by some of these sovereign wealth funds,” Barrack testified. “The rest are all envious of trying to create a relationship with them.”

Sheikh Tahnoon never met Trump during the campaign. “My belief was that they just didn’t take him that seriously,” Barrack said. “At that point in time he was not a serious contender.”

Along with MBZ, Sheikh Tahnoon did meet with President-elect Trump in December 2016. Barrack testified that he wasn’t invited and only learned of that meeting after it took place.

Barrack himself met with MBZ that month, along with Sheikh Tahnoon and a third Emirati royal, Ali Mohammed Hammad Al Shamsi. According to prosecutors, Barrack worked with the three and another UAE official, Khalifa Al Ghafli, to broker a May 2017 White House meeting for MBZ and advocated candidates favored by the UAE for key US diplomatic posts.

The government showed jurors a December 2016 text exchange in which Al Malik suggested to Al Ghafli that Barrack himself might become Trump’s secretary of state.

“He will be a great envoy for us,” Al Ghafli replied.

None of the four Emiratis were charged in the case, and Barrack denied arranging the White House visit or pushing for any Trump administration appointments.

The case is US v. Al Malik Alshahhi, 21-cr-00371, US District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

(Updates with the jury beginning deliberations in seventh paragraph.)

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