The President and senior administration officials — including multiple attorneys general — repeatedly meddled in a federal investigation into the state-owned Turkish bank Halkbank, the New York Times reported Thursday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tried for years to get federal prosecutors in America to lay off of Halkbank, which is accused of a conspiracy to violate United States sanctions on Iran, as well as money laundering and fraud. Plenty of reporting exists about those efforts.
But the Times laid out a fresh chain of events that pulls back the curtain on the involvement of Trump officials and the President’s business interests in Turkey, and may even amount to obstruction of justice.
1. Trump administration meddling in the case happened early and often.
The report describes several conservations in which the Turkish president pressed Trump in conversations to resolve the case and Trump responded receptively, despite the fact that doing so undermined his hard line on Iran.
In one case described by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, for example, Erdoğan handed Trump a memo filed in the case by Halbank’s lawyers. The President glanced through it and promptly replied, “Well, it looks convincing to me.” Later, after a call between the leaders, the Justice Department told federal prosecutors in New York that Cabinet members including Mike Pompeo and Steven Mnuchin, as well as the main Justice Department itself, would be getting involved in the case.
Former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was another key player: After taking office in late 2018, Whitaker reportedly shot down U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman’s request to file charges against the bank at the beginning of 2019 — just after Erdoğan pressed Trump on the matter in a series of talks.
Whitaker reportedly wanted the case shut down entirely. Why? Per the Times: “Mr. Whitaker cited concern that charges against the bank might result in a threat to U.S. forces in Syria.” Prosecutors didn’t buy that.
2. The story sheds light on the fate of fired U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman?
Eventually, after Attorney General Bill Barr took office, Barr reportedly pressed SDNY prosecutors in June 2019 to let Halkbank off easy — and, just as importantly, to not charge several high-ranking individuals at the bank, a concession to Erdoğan. Barr, per the Times, wanted to let off the suspected co-conspirators without any cooperation.
“This is not how we do things at the Southern District,” Berman told Barr, per the Times.
Charges were eventually filed against the bank, in October 2019, but no additional individuals have been charged.
Berman was fired in June of this year. The Times reported that the administration’s “bitterness” over Berman’s resistance to Barr’s proposal did eventually contribute to the firing.
3. Trump and key allies’ financial interests permeate the story.
Trump has admitted that he has a fondness for strong men and dictators, but that’s not the only thing that may be motivating his behavior in this case.
For one thing, the Times noted, there’s a Trump Tower in Istanbul. Erdoğan was present at the ribbon-cutting. And Trump has reported receiving nearly $3 million in income from the country in recent years, the Times noted.
Then there’s the Trump swamp surrounding the President: Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, represented a gold trader involved in the Iran sanctions violations. Another Trump ally, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, has acknowledged that he filed false information about his lobbying work for Turkey. And the firm of a key lobbyist and fundraiser in Trumpworld, Brian Ballard, was paid $4.6 million by Turkey over two years, the Times noted.
4. Ukraine redux.
This whole thing feels a bit like déjà vu, as it involves many of the same players that testified or were otherwise connected to Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
For one thing, John Bolton has narrated many of the exchanges between Trump and Erdoğan in his book and interviews with the Times. Barr, Pompeo and Giuliani also played a substantial role in both scandals. So does key impeachment witness Fiona Hill.
“This was a relationship that was really important for the United States to handle,” she told the Times of the Halkbank situation. “And at every turn, the president kept leaping in, and he wasn’t following the strategic threads of the relationship.”
5. ‘That does look like obstruction of justice.’
One quote from Bolton points to a potential post-presidential issue for Trump. Acknowledging that he did not know the details of Barr’s attempts to get SDNY prosecutors to reach a “global settlement” in the Halkbank case, Bolton said the dynamics between Trump and Erdoğan disturbed him.
“It was so idiosyncratic, so personal to Trump in the pursuit of personal relationships, that it was very dangerous,” Bolton said. “And it does look like obstruction of justice.”
He’s not alone in those sorts of concerns. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on Thursday called the Times’ reporting “unreal.”
As we learned during the Mueller probe, motivation is key when it comes to obstruction of justice: Why did the President do what he did? But the probe had another significant takeaway: The Justice Department’s current policy against indicting Presidents only applies when they’re in office.
Matt Shuham (@mattshuham) is a reporter in TPM’s New York office covering corruption, extremism and other beats. Prior to joining TPM, he was associate editor of The National Memo and an editorial intern at Rolling Stone.