When candidate Donald Trump prepared to give a major energy speech during the 2016 campaign, one of his closest advisers provided a pre-speech review to senior United Arab Emirates officials, an unorthodox move that caught the attention of federal investigators, according to emails and text messages uncovered by a House Oversight Committee investigation.
“The Trump Administration has virtually obliterated the lines normally separating government policy making from corporate and foreign interests,” according to a report overseen by House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, who commissioned the investigation into back channel business dealings between certain Trump aides and Middle Eastern countries.
Two weeks before Trump was scheduled to deliver the energy policy speech, Thomas Barrack, a California investment tycoon with extensive contacts in the Middle East and who later helped oversee Trump’s inauguration, provided a former business associate inside the United Arab Emirates with an advance copy of the candidate’s planned remarks. The associate then told Barrack he shared them with UAE and Saudi government officials, after which Barrack arranged for language requested by the UAE officials to be added to the speech with the help of Trump’s campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort.
“This is the most likely final version of the speech. It has the language you want,” Manafort confirmed in an email to Barrack on the day of the speech, according to the report. Manafort has since gone to prison for financial crimes unrelated to his campaign work.
The White House declined to comment.
House investigators note in their report that none of the documents they gathered indicate “whether Trump was aware that drafts of his speech were circulated to foreign officials in the Middle East or that feedback had been provided through Mr. Barrack and Mr. Manafort.”
Attorneys for Manafort declined to comment when reached Monday.
The back-channel exchange caught the attention not only of House investigators but also of federal prosecutors, according to a report late Sunday in The New York Times, which first reported on the dealings.
ABC News has obtained copies of more detailed emails and texts from House investigators, who gathered more than 60,000 documents showing what they say are the intermingling of private interests and public policy decision by Trump aides both before and after he took office. The resulting investigative report, made public Monday, presents events surrounding the 2016 energy speech as a prime example of how Trump’s close aides were granting their foreign business contacts access to campaign policy decisions.
A source close to Barrack confirmed the basic details to ABC News. A statement from Barrack’s spokesman, first published by The Times, said prosecutors had confirmed to Barrack’s attorney that “they have no further questions for Mr. Barrack.” His aides told The Times he never worked on behalf of foreign states or entities and he was ultimately disappointed that more of the language sought by his contacts in the Middle East did not wind up in Trump’s speech.
Trump traveled to North Dakota in May of 2016, having just clinched the Republican nomination for president. He intended to give a policy speech that would solidify his position on oil, gas and coal – an energy speech that would make clear he would prioritize American energy jobs over grand multi-national environmental pacts like the Paris climate agreement.
Trump called his approach an “America First” energy plan that would “make America wealthy again.”
“Under my presidency, we will accomplish complete American energy independence,” he told the crowd. “Imagine a world in which our foes, and the oil cartels, can no longer use energy as a weapon.”
In the midst of the muscular, America-first approach that became a hallmark of his campaign, he added a phrase intended to placate an audience far away in the United Arab Emirates, telling the crowd “we will work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy.”
The language was modest when compared to what was requested by officials in the oil-rich emirates, according to the text messages exchanged between Barrack and Rashid al-Malik, a former business associate in UAE. Al-Malik had secretly worked as an intelligence asset for the UAE government, “tasked to report to his Emirati intelligence handlers on topics of consequence to the UAE,” the House report said, citing an Intercept news report.
William F. Coffield, an attorney for al-Malik, told ABC News his client “was never a conduit to the Trump organization for anyone. He has never been a paid intelligence source for anyone.”
“Mr. al-Malik is from the UAE and has a home in the U.S. He loves the UAE and the USA,” said Coffield. “He was a business associate of Mr Barrack’s, and they shared a personal desire to build bridges between the citizens of both. It’s really that simple.”
Barrack and al-Malik began the text message exchanges two weeks before Trump’s energy speech was set to be delivered, according to the House report. Barrack sent a draft of the candidate’s energy remarks to al-Malik and a message that said, “What do you think of his energy message given to American executives with a pro Middle East point of view -- for you and Saeed to rebiew [sic] for me quickly. I need a few pro Middle East aspects.” The report does not identify “Saeed.”
An hour later, al-Malik responded, “This is what I got from them,” according to the report.
The text does not identify “them,” but House investigators say they believe it is a reference to Saudi and Emirati officials. In that text, al-Malik requests that new language add references to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and UAE Crown Prince Abudhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as well as a line that states: “We can and should support reform in the Middle East, in the process thereby reducing the appeal of Islamic terrorism, and support our allies who are fighting our enemies.”
The following day, Barrack proposes the additional language to Manafort, suggesting references to the two Arab leaders and language that loosely mirrors the sentiments that had been requested. He adds in his email, “This is probably as close as I can get without crossing a lot of lines,” according to the report.
The language that winds up in Trump’s speech ultimately does not include the direct references to the Gulf leaders but does include a nod to the requested sentiment – expressing his desire to “work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy.”