A lawyer for Thomas J. Barrack Jr., an informal adviser to former president Donald J. Trump, told jurors Wednesday that accusations that his client was an illegal foreign agent were “nothing short of ridiculous” — and that prosecutors had inflated “inconsequential acts” into a supposed plot in which Mr. Barrack agreed to betray his country.
“He did things because he wanted to,” the lawyer, Michael Schachter, said on the first day of Mr. Barrack’s trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on charges that he acted secretly at the direction of the United Arab Emirates. “The idea that Tom Barrack was controlled by anybody is nonsense.”
In opening statements on Wednesday, prosecutors and lawyers for Mr. Barrack faced off in a case that could shed light on the Trump administration and on efforts by foreign governments to gain influence in the United States.
Prosecutors have accused Mr. Barrack — a Los Angeles-based private-equity investor — of using his sway with Mr. Trump to advance the interests of the Emiratis, serving as a secret back channel for communications without disclosing his efforts to the attorney general, as the government contends he should have.
In the government’s opening statement, a prosecutor, Hiral Mehta, said that Mr. Barrack tried to influence U.S. policy and agreed to pass on sensitive intelligence to the Emiratis “in the corrupt pursuit of money and power.”
Mr. Mehta said Mr. Barrack did not notify the attorney general because it would have made him useless to the U.A.E., saying the effort “would have been outed for what it was: a foreign influence and intelligence campaign.”
The prosecutor said Mr. Barrack’s agreement with the Emiratis began when Mr. Trump was a candidate and escalated as Mr. Trump moved toward the Oval Office and Mr. Barrack became more useful.
Mr. Barrack faces nine counts in all, including acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, obstruction of justice and making false statements: Prosecutors say he repeatedly lied to F.B.I. agents when questioned in 2019 about his dealings with the Emiratis.
Opening statements on both sides touched on a central contention of the government: that Mr. Barrack, while serving the Emirati government, also sought money from the Gulf nation’s leaders for investment funds. Mr. Schachter said his client’s interactions with those leaders — including a biking excursion “in the searing desert heat” with a member of the Emirati ruling family — were entirely normal for the head of an investment firm.
He is on trial alongside his former assistant, Matthew Grimes, who was charged only on the lobbying counts. Both were arrested in July 2021; prosecutors filed a second indictment in the case in May with additional allegations about Mr. Barrack’s efforts.
A third defendant, Rashid al-Malik, an Emirati businessman who left the United States in 2018 after federal agents interviewed him, remains at large, prosecutors said.
The government could call its first witness as soon as Wednesday afternoon, after opening statements are completed.