As the trial of Thomas J. Barrack Jr., his assistant Matthew Grimes, and their associate Rashid al-Malik unfolds, The Knows provides critical context to Barrack’s connections to powerful agents of foreign influence prior to his decades-long relationship with Donald Trump.
In 1976, three men arrived in Port-au-Prince with a request for Haiti’s young but brutal dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Five years into his reign, Baby Doc’s grip on the troubled nation had been cemented after inheriting the presidency at 19 following the despotic regime of his father: François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
Running point for the trio who’d made the pilgrimage to meet Baby Doc was young American lawyer Thomas J. Barrack Jr., just two years out of law school.
Speaking in French, Barrack asked Baby Doc whether Haiti would grant the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia most-favored-nation trading status with the Caribbean island nation.
Standing behind Barrack were two of his clients: future head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud and a second Saudi royal whose identity remains inconclusive.
Closing the deal would mean that another of Barrack’s clients, “Big” Lonnie Dunn, could import Saudi oil to Haiti at the lowest price in the world.
Dunn had planned to build an oil-transhipment facility on his Dauphin Plantation, located in the far north of the island where newly developed supertankers could unload their cargo. From there, it would be shipped to the U.S. which lacked the facilities to unload the giant ships.
Dunn was a well-connected American who owned the natural gas company Pacific Lighting and had been a client of Barrack’s former law firm, Kalmbach, DeMarco, Knapp & Chillingworth, run by former President Richard M. Nixon’s personal lawyer Herbert Kalmbach.
In the early 70s, the firm had sent Barrack to Saudi Arabia to work at a compound run by state-owned oil giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co. After a few weeks in the desert, Barrack was asked to play squash with a young Saudi with whom he soon became friendly over more rounds of squash.
It turned out young Barrack’s Saudi squash partner was a son of then-King Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Rounds of squash led to an introduction to other sons of King Faisal before his assassination in March 1975.
Soon thereafter Barrack quit his job with the Kalmbach firm and went to work directly for two of the princes, facilitating lucrative introductions for Western companies seeking business with the Saudi royal court. It was alongside these two princes that Barrack would meet Baby Doc.
Prince Turki had come to rely on Barrack’s acumen at brokering deals between U.S. construction firms and the Saudi Royal Court. Barrack had set up shop in Beirut, Lebanon, where he courted the many American interests seeking business in the kingdom.
Standing among this new generation of despots, Baby Doc’s eyes fixated on the princes’ diamond-studded Piaget watches.
According to Barrack’s 2011 speaking engagement at the Lebanese consulate in Los Angeles, during the Port-au-Prince meeting, Prince Turki leaned forward to tell Barrack that Baby Doc was welcome to take a closer look at the precious timepiece.
An enamored Baby Doc slipped on the watch.
Prince Turki, sensing a deal was in reach, whispered to Barrack: Baby Doc could keep the Piaget.
A few minutes after Prince Turki offered up his Piaget watch, Baby Doc sprung to his feet.
“I see no reason why a great country like Haiti should have anything to do with a nation like Saudi Arabia,” the young Haitian president said.
Barrack was mortified, according to his 2011 retelling of the meeting. His first political fix was an ash heap at first spark.
By 2011, Barrack’s distressing turn of affairs in Port-au-Prince had been relegated to a humorous anecdote leveraged for presentations that emphasized his “long lines” relationships that, like his friendships with Prince Turki and future President Donald J. Trump, stretched back decades.
Just months before recounting his exploits with the Saudi princes in Haiti to a rapt audience, Barrack’s Colony Capital had acquired Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films with underwriting from the Qatar Investment Authority.
The courtship with Baby Doc was never consummated, but it solidified a 40–plus-year polygamous love affair with Gulf state royalty that ended July 2021 with Barrack’s arrest and indictment for allegedly acting as a foreign agent of the United Arab Emirates and obstruction of justice for lying to the FBI.
The tale of the two Saudi princes and Baby Doc is a story Barrack has told many times, highlighting different details depending on the audience.
What’s certain is the encounter was ground zero of a 50-year career profiting from the interests of Arab autocrats, many of whom pioneered a different sort of pipeline to pump virtually unlimited investment capital to the West.
Barrack’s cultivation of powerful friends reached its apex in 2017 when he was named chair of 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC).
Over seven days in January leading up to Trump’s swearing in, Barrack coordinated a vaudevillian carnival of foreign and domestic actors intent on trading political favors in unprecedented ways.
Barrack and his deputy Rick Gates used their senior roles in the PIC to leverage access and fundraising for the 2017 inauguration, ensuring that a small circle of Trump associates could use that bargaining power to their advantage and that of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The effort had two goals: 1) the installation of UAE-friendly Mohammed bin Salman as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; and 2) a nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., which would not limit the Saudis’ right to enrich uranium. Geopolitically, the sales pitch was one of mutual interest with the U.S. — to keep in check Iran’s growing influence in the region.
As Barrack tells it, his business with the modern Middle East began one Saturday when a partner at his firm asked him to represent an American company named Fluor that was building a natural gas facility at Saudi Arabia’s massive Jubail Industrial City. Today Jubail is the largest industrial development project in the world, covering more than 687 square miles.
Barrack had landed at the birth of modern-day Saudi Arabia just as interests at the Royal Court needed a young lawyer who understood their way of doing business to represent their interests in the West.
These adventures led to the disastrous audience in Haiti with Baby Doc. Despite the setback, the princes had still managed to solve Dunn’s problem.
“Long story short, that deal gets done in a funny way,” as Barrack explained to his 2011 Los Angeles audience. “The boys bailed out Pacific Lighting.”
The two princes had bought the land from Dunn, eventually flipping the property.
It was Barrack’s first big deal and, tellingly, it was finalized with money from Saudi princes. The first sketches of a long line relationship between Barrack and Arab investment capital started to take shape.
One report estimated that by 2013 Barrack had brought $8 billion in capital from the Middle East to the U.S. through his Colony Capital vehicle. The figure represented at least a quarter of the real estate private equity fund’s holdings.
Regardless of the disaster in Port-au-Prince, “Big” Lonnie Dunn knew how to glad-hand good deals out of a young up-and-comer. So the businessman hired Barrack in 1976 to be the president of his real estate company, Dunn International Corporation.
“What we’ll do is capitalize this company, and you match it with your Arab investors,” Dunn said. He had been saved by the princes, and now he hoped to profit.
After learning the ins and outs of the commercial real estate business at Dunn International, Barrack sold the company to Canadian real estate fund Oxford Properties.
After a brief stint in the Reagan administration, Barrack ended up working for Texas real estate tycoon Robert M. Bass.
Six years later, sensing that savings and loan bailouts were coming, Barrack struck out on his own with Colony Capital. The initial money came from Bass, GE Capital, and two unnamed families from the Middle East.
Colony pivoted from bad real estate debt to hospitality, snapping up resorts, casinos, and hotels. After spending $1.7 billion to buy Raffles hotels, Barrack teamed with Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to buy Fairmont Hotels for nearly $4 billion which they soon combined with Raffles.
By 1979, Prince Turki’s rise following his Piaget diplomacy in Haiti with Barrack saw him appointed President of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, or GID, the country’s foreign intelligence service.
That same year, the Iranian Revolution resulted in the ousting of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran whom the U.S. had backed. Iran’s new leaders were hostile toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Turki ran efforts to arm Afghanistan’s mujahideen in their fight against the Red Army, maneuvering seamlessly between U.S. administrations and parties by leveraging his supposed friendship with former college classmate and future President Bill Clinton.
In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration was focused on the threat from Osama bin Laden whose associates first tried to take down the World Trade Center in a 1993 bombing.
Some argued bin Laden was a protégé of Prince Turki, deliberately selected as the face of the kingdom’s commitment to the mujahideen.
After al-Qaida struck U.S. embassies in East Africa with truck bombs, American officials sought the assistance of Saudi Intelligence to catch bin Laden.
Despite the Saudi prince’s ties to President Clinton, under Turki’s leadership GID had stopped assisting with the search for bin Laden because he had “too much information about official Saudi dealings with Islamic extremists in the 1980s for Riyadh to deliver him into U.S. hands,” according to a May 1996 memo from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
Despite the GID’s problematic relationship with the bin Laden hunters in the U.S. government, the Saudi government extended Prince Turki’s Presidency of the intelligence agency by an additional four years on May 26, 2001.
But three months later, less than two weeks before 9/11, Turki suddenly vacated the presidency of the Saudi intelligence agency.
Congress launched a joint investigation into the intelligence failures that had allowed the al-Qaida operation to succeed. “The Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001” was relased as Senate Report 107-351.
Twenty-eight pages of the report, however, would remain classified for more than a decade after the report’s December 2002 release. They included a section of the report titled “Lack of Saudi Cooperation in Counterterrorism Investigations,” which found the Saudis had hindered U.S. efforts to bring bin Laden to justice. It included testimony describing the relationship with Turki’s GID and al-Qaida as “very troubled.”
Between a 2002 Washington Post editorial attributed to Prince Turki and a relatively favorable portrayal of the Saudi royal in Charles Wright’s blockbuster, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11, the Saudi record of uncooperativeness with U.S. efforts to defeat al-Qaida remained buried for more than a decade.
After his sudden departure from Saudi intelligence in 2001, Turki took on a series of top diplomatic posts with his 2003 appointment as Saudi ambassador to the UK and then to the U.S. in 2005.
All the while, dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan allowed the ramblings of the tinfoil hat crowd to spawn the 9/11 truther movement, which handily muddied the waters enough to drown out the questions of serious investigators let alone the families of the hijackers’ victims.
As Turki served Saudi interests in Western capitals, Iranian dissidents revealed the Islamic Republic had started a secret nuclear program to counter Israel’s nuclear stockpile. U.N. inspectors looking into the program confirmed these reports when they found more than a hundred centrifuges for enriching uranium at an Iranian facility.
Prince Turki left the post of Saudi Ambassador to the United States in 2006, becoming an important informal representative of the Saudi state worldwide.
In 2008, the U.S. and the Saudi governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding U.S. willingness to help Saudi Arabia start its own nuclear program. The Saudi desire for enrichment capabilities predated the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal by four years.
Although the Saudis ostensibly agreed to join non-proliferation treaties, months later a secret diplomatic cable from the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ford M. Fraker reported a less rosy picture of the negotiations.
Fraker’s cable noted the concerns of Prince Turki’s brother, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who expressed his concern of “foregoing rights” as a precondition for cooperation. Prince Saud did not want “cooperation without restrictions on [Saudi Arabia] that do not exist on other countries.”
The cable also showed that Saudi Arabia wanted to “avoid U.S. Congressional involvement in this program because of their perception that Congress is biased against the SAG and would likely impede engagement.”
Under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, countries requesting significant exchanges of nuclear technology and materials from the U.S. must sign a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement, informally known as a 123 Agreement. Congress has the power to disapprove any 123 agreement.
The U.S. hoped for a 123 agreement that would prohibit the Saudis’ enrichment of nuclear materials. Those hopes were dashed when the Saudis backed away from a pledge not to reprocess and enrich nuclear fuel.
In March 2011, Turki told an audience that the Gulf Cooperation Council might seek their own nuclear deterrent.
Three months later, in a secret June 2011 speech at RAF Molesworth, Turki told NATO commanders Saudi Arabia would seek nuclear capability on par with Iran if the West failed to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t,” a senior Saudi official told The Guardian in response to the paper’s questions about Turki’s Molesworth speech.
From The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to Slate, Turki vigilantly stuck to the message regarding the parameters of Saudi enrichment capabilities and its red-line scenario. Turki laid the groundwork for Saudi Arabia to gain the same capacity to enrich nuclear fuel possessed by Iran at conferences in South Korea, Riyadh, Dubai, and beyond.
Prince Turki’s message was important to Alex Copson, a British-American entrepreneur, who since the 1980s had solicited a series of schemes to store nuclear waste underwater.
In late 1994, Copson incorporated U.S. Fuel & Security, Inc. to pitch his plans for nuclear storage to the Clinton administration via former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and USFS CEO Admiral Daniel Murphy.
Copson’s unusual plans included a comingling of ostensible interests he claimed were somehow shared by the Russian government and U.S. and German companies in order to broaden international support.
In a 2006 interview with United Press International, Viktor Mikhailov, head of Russia’s Ministry for Atomic Energy (MinAtom), recounted the failed deal: “Their millionaire Alex Copson was in this business then and he wanted to do this, but President Clinton did not allow him to.”
Founded in 1992 as the successor to the Ministry of Nuclear Engineering and Industry of the USSR, MinAtom was known for its connections to Russian mafia figures.
After the Clinton Administration rejected Copson’s plans, his motley crew shifted the location for the leasing and fuel storage scheme to Russia.
Copson appeared to fade into the background as a new non-profit entity, the Non-Proliferation Trust, took up the leading role in the scheme. But investigative journalist Greg Palast later revealed the Non-Proliferation Trust would pay Copson if the deal with Russia’s MinAtom went through.
After his interlocutor Admiral Murphy passed away in 2001, Copson rebranded by creating a series of companies with the same name: ACU Strategic Partners.
The Russian fuel-storage and leasing scheme never came to fruition as the Russian Federation’s nuclear cooperation with Iran and resistance to importation of nuclear waste increased across Russia’s political factions.
Repackaged versions of these nuclear schemes would later serve the ambitions of Barrack and Turki. Their long lines of dealmakers, despots, and opportunists looking to profit off shady foreign influence deals only increased in length, hoping to cement their fates among the masters of the universe responsible for keeping the oil and money needed to wage never-ending wars.