Los Angeles financier Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a billionaire with long ties to the Mideast and a close ally of President Trump, apologized Wednesday for saying it was a mistake to criticize the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist killed at a Saudi Arabian consulate last year.
Barrack, founder and chief executive of Colony Capital Inc., first said at a Milken Institute summit in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday that “whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal or worse to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia.”
“The atrocities in any autocratic country are dictated by the rule of law,” Barrack said. “So for us to dictate what we think is the moral code there, when we have a young man and a regime that’s trying to push themselves into 2030, I think is a mistake,” he said in an apparent reference to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 33-year-old de facto ruler.
After Barrack’s comments were reported, first by Gulf News, Barrack — whose firm has joined with Qatar and other Persian Gulf investors in the past, and reportedly Saudi investors as well — quickly backtracked by issuing a statement that the killing “was atrocious and is inexcusable.”
“I apologize for not making it clear at the time that I consider the killing reprehensible,” Barrack said.
Barrack’s comments drew criticism from celebrities, political commentators and elected officials, including Rep Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who asked on Twitter why Trump chooses to “surround himself with people like Tom Barrack who put down the U.S.?” Conservative commentator Bill Kristol tweeted that the remarks show “Trumpism ‘blows out the moral lights around us’ and insists ‘there is no right principle of action but self-interest.’”
Khashoggi, an insider-turned-critic of the Saudi ruling regime, was killed and dismembered by people close to the crown prince at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul after he entered to pick up documents, Turkish authorities allege.
Saudi Arabia has said the crown prince was not aware of any plan to kill Khashoggi, although the U.S. intelligence community concluded that he probably ordered the killing.
The killing sparked a crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations after Trump built his Middle East strategy around an alliance with the kingdom. Saudi Arabia was the first nation Trump visited after taking office in 2017 and he frequently touted U.S. weapons sales to the Saudis that were brokered during his trip.
The death of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote for the Washington Post, sparked outrage internationally and in Congress, where even top Republican leaders such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina broke with the president and pushed to sanction the kingdom.
The 71-year-old Barrack — who has a net worth of $1 billion, according to Forbes — has been friends with Trump for the last three decades and he planned the president’s inauguration in early 2017.
Barrack’s Los Angeles-based Colony Capital is a publicly held investment firm with $44 billion of assets under management that often bets on distressed assets. In 2008, for instance, Colony bailed out Michael Jackson when the late singer’s Neverland Ranch was on the brink of foreclosure.
The grandson of Lebanese Christian immigrants, Barrack also has busines ties to the Mideast — and a deep knowledge of its politics and cultures — dating to the early 1970s, when as an attorney he worked on a project in Saudi Arabia and then spent the next four years there as an advisor to the royal family.
At Colony Capital, Barrack also has tapped various Mideast investors to help fund the firm’s operations.
With partners from Qatar, Barrack was part of an investment group that bought Miramax Films in 2010, later selling the studio to investors in Qatar. However, his dealings with the Gulf State have been complicated by a blockade of Qatar started in 2017 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
More recently, Barrack has done deals with sovereign wealth funds in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, according to published reports. Colony typically does not disclose investors in its funds and declined to comment Wednesday.
Between Trump’s nomination and mid-2018, Colony raised more than $7 billion in investments and 24% of that money came from the Persian Gulf, all from either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the New York Times reported last year.
However, Colony has had financial problems of late in the aftermath of its merger with the NorthStar asset management and real estate finance firms in early 2017.
Colony’s earnings have dropped, and its stock has plummeted from about $14.50 a share two years ago to a close of $6.07 on Wednesday. Barrack resumed his role as Colony’s chief executive last November to help Colony bolster its performance; he’s also the firm’s executive chairman.
On Monday, Colony also announced that it was forming a committee to evaluate the company’s assets and make recommendations for any changes to the firm’s operations.
Barrack spoke Tuesday at the Mena Summit in Abu Dhabi, which was organized by the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica think tank founded by financier Michael Milken.
Bloomberg contributed to this report.