According to the latest reports from the U.S. Census, every American family has at least one crazy uncle locked in their attic. By the perverse-inverse rules that seem to govern the current White House occupants, the Trump administration has locked up the only sane “uncle” they could find and strapped him to a chair. His name is Tom Barrack.
Barrack is of broader global interest because the New York Times just discovered he’s the apparent portal by which so much of the Russian influence that’s osmotically infused itself into the Trump White House managed to gain entry. He’s also emerged as one of the only talking heads — shaved balder and shinier than even Daddy Warbucks — capable of presenting such a relentlessly reasonable face on behalf of our Solar Explosion in Chief, Donald Trump. Locally, Barrack — founder of Colony Capital, a $60 billion global real estate investment empire — is of significant interest because, until recently, he maintained a steady presence here in Santa Barbara, embracing “the Santa Barbara lifestyle” feet first, which is to say he makes wine, surfs, and plays polo. Barrack, for example, started the Happy Canyon Winery, which runs a tasting room down in El Paseo. A brilliant contrarian when it comes to investment strategies, Barrack also bought Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and at one time owned as many as four polo fields.
Barrack and Trump go back to the 1980s when Barrack reportedly skinned Trump alive in a mega-zillion-dollar real estate deal but had the good grace to act as if he hadn’t. They’ve been fast friends ever since. Barrack helped raise money for Trump during the campaign and was put in charge of running the inaugural bash. Barrack famously told Vanity Fair beforehand the inauguration would be marked by a “soft sensuality” and “poetic cadence.” Superficially, this seems just silly. But given Barrack’s singular status as the only sane person in the room, it suggests an ominous disconnect between what he describes and how he describes it.
Barrack, it turns out, is a key interface in the link between Russian influence and the Trump White House — still very much a burning question despite this week’s eruption of bad blood over Russia’s role in Syria’s chemical warfare attacks and Russia’s attempted cover-up. Exhibit A in the FBI’s investigation into Russian influence is political consultant Paul Manafort, who, for about six months last year, ran Trump’s presidential campaign. Manafort had previously run the presidential campaign of Vladimir Putin’s handpicked Ukrainian stooge, Viktor Yanukovych, in that country’s election. Allegations later surfaced that Manafort received $12.7 million in illegal slush-fund pay-offs by a Russian business tycoon to promote Russia’s interests. (Manafort denies being on the $12 million take, suggesting he was the target of a blackmail plot instead.) The revelation, nevertheless, forced him to step down from the campaign. Manafort and Trump also knew each other from the 1980s, but were not tight. He landed the Trump gig by contacting his old friend Tom Barrack. The two met at the Montage Beverley Hills hotel, the Times reported, where they talked over “coffee and snacks.” Barrack sent Trump a note, enthusiastically describing Manafort as “a killer” and “the most experienced and lethal of managers.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Barrack — the grandson of Lebanese immigrants — has espoused a highly nuanced and chillingly pragmatic view of U.S. foreign policy, especially as it relates to the Middle East. The United States cannot afford the luxury of moral qualms, he wrote in Fortune magazine last October, over the repressive measures our despotic allies deploy to stay in power. He takes exception to what he describes as the United States policy of “embrace and abandon” when it comes to strong-men run amok like the Shah of Iran, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. The latest devil with whom Barrack says the United States must dance is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. “Like it or not, the military option most unpopular with American voters and politicians may be its best,” Barrack wrote. “Bashar Assad may well be our only hope in fighting the various terrorist factions that are attempting to form as ISIS state.” Barrack is equally pragmatic in his advice about Russia, which he warned was filling the power vacuum created in the Middle East by a retreating United States. “The only solution is one that works with Russia and not against them.” Later, in an interview on CNBC, Barrack asked, “Why is Putin the enemy? You need Putin to solve the Middle East.” Barrack’s Colony Capital has had extensive business holdings in Russia, but there’s nothing to suggest a personal relationship with Putin.
I get Barrack’s point: One has to play the cards you’ve been dealt. But given Russia’s obvious efforts to get Trump elected, one has to wonder what the deal really is and who, in fact, is getting played. Not surprisingly, there’s so much suspicion about the selective outrage expressed by the White House over Assad’s use of chemical warfare in murdering “beautiful babies.” Given Trump’s wildly impulsive style, the outrage could be perfectly genuine. Likewise, it could be so much kabuki theater designed to look like a breakup with Putin. Putin himself suggested the latter and said he wasn’t buying it. “It’s boring, ladies,” he said. “We’ve seen it before.” Of course, if this was kabuki, that’s exactly what you’d expect him to say.
I sought to contact Barrack to see if his thoughts on Syria and Russia had changed any in the past week. His assistant Alison Marckstadt replied, “Unfortunately, Mr. Barrack is unable to accommodate your deadline, as he is traveling.”
Fat chance. I know they got him strapped to a chair somewhere. No doubt with a tennis ball jammed in his mouth to keep him quiet. Every family has one.