A notable new investigation by the New York Times reveals that U.S. President Donald Trump and senior administration officials have frequently moved to quash an investigation into a Turkey’s Halkbank after the president was repeatedly lobbied on the issue by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
There have been many attempts to understand why and how the Erdoğan government and the Trump administration got on so well for several years. The case against Halkbank, which is accused of laundering up to $20 billion on behalf of Iranian entities to help them break U.S.-imposed sanctions, bank fraud charges, and concealing the nature of these illicit transactions from U.S. officials, has been one of the hot topics on the “bromance” between the two leaders.
So, what have we learned from the NYT investigation?
1. Trump tried, tried and tried to squash the case against Halkbank
The NYT mentions several conversations between Trump and Erdoğan where the Turkish president urged his U.S. counterpart to settle the Halkbank case and Trump responded tactfully, even though he supports a hard line on Iran.
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, details a case where Erdoğan provided Trump with a memo maintaining the innocence of Halkbank. “Well, it looks convincing to me,” Trump said after quickly skimming through the text.
Later, the Justice Department told federal prosecutors in New York overseeing the case that senior officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, as well as the main Justice Department itself, would going to involve in the case.
Trump also reached out to former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker to “fix” Turkey’s problem. Whitaker reportedly shot down U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Geoffrey Berman’s request to file charges against the bank at the beginning of 2019.
2. Key reason to remove powerful U.S. Attorney was… Halkbank
Trump also instructed Attorney General William Barr to address Erdoğan’s requests that Halkbank avoid charges. After Barr took office in early 2019, he pressed SDNY prosecutors in June 2019 over the Halkbank.
However, Berman resisted Barr’s pressure and charges were finally filed against the bank in October last year.
However, Berman was fired in June 2020. The NYT says that Trump administration’s “bitterness” over Berman’s resistance on the Halkbank case was a key reason for his removal.
3. Trump has mixed personal and state businesses when it comes to dealing with Erdogan
The NYT noted that Trump’s personal interests in Turkey are also contributing to his approach to the case. He has a Trump Tower in Istanbul and Erdoğan attended its opening ceremony along with Trump and other Trump Family members. The U.S. president made nearly $3 million in profit from his his business in Turkey recently, the NYT said. A month ago, NYT reported on Trump’s tax records which showed the president collected $13 million from Turkey since 2008 – far more than the previously known amount of earnings.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, represented Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who implicated high-ranking Turkish politicians in a scheme to evade American sanctions on Iran. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, another personage from Trump’s close circle, has acknowledged that he filed false information about his lobbying work for Turkey. On top of that, the lobbying firm of Brian Ballard, a top Trump fundraiser, was paid $4.6 million by Turkey over two years, the NYT said.
4. Impeachment players involved with Halkbank: Giuliani, Barr and Pompeo…
The impeachment crisis against Trump over his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he is suspected of urging his counterpart to investigate a political rival involves the same players; Barr, Pompeo and Giuliani, the NYT said.
“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. Obstruction of Justice??
Bolton said Trump’s willingness provide Erdoğan with a settlement in the Halkbank case was obstruction of justice “It was so idiosyncratic, so personal to Trump in the pursuit of personal relationships, that it was very dangerous,” the NYT cited Bolton as saying.
“And it does look like obstruction of justice.”
Bolton also said Trump told Erdoğan, in the presence of the former national security advisor, he would get his people involved in the Halkbank case to “take care “of the matter.
6. Erdoğan began pressing Trump early and consistently…
All the reports imply that Erdoğan got a foot in the door in early with Trump and he prioritised Halkbank and the fate of his close circle in the numerous meetings with the U.S. President for the last four years. The two of the top priorities of Erdoğan was to dismiss the charges against Halkbank and get Zarrab out of jail, yet it seems he failed so far.
It should also be noted that Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin’s lobbying contract with Trump’s first National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was the earliest and most serious tie between the two leaders. Alptekin was the former head of U.S.-Turkey Business Council, then indicted by the U.S. federal prosecutors, and he currently cannot travel outside of Turkey. Flynn got fired from his position only weeks after Trump inaugurated.
7. Now Halkbank became a part of the U.S. elections
Erdoğan, his relationship with Trump, with all the tintamarre by the Democrats, and the Halkbank case have found a stage in the U.S. election race.
U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden has already taken aim at Erdoğan in a bid to slam Trump’s appeasing authoritarian leaders. Biden said in an interview with the New York Times editorial board in December that he would embolden Turkish opposition to defeat Turkey’s strongman in elections if he became president. He also called Erdoğan an “autocrat,” adding, “He’s the president of Turkey and a lot more.”
Biden’s words riled up a storm in Turkey, with Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles blasting his comments as putschism and an example of foreign interference.
The case against Halkbank will probably be one of the key topics in United States-Turkey relations if Biden is elected, as the lawsuit against a sanctions busting scheme with Iran is set to continue in March.
8. The story has confirmed Turkish opposition figures’ and critical news outlets’ suspicion over Erdogan that he has prioritised to save his family and friends while dealing with the most powerful country on the earth
Finally, the investigation published by the New York Times also has shown how much the Turkish opposition has been right about the Zarrab and Halkbank cases and how much the Erdogan government has prioritised the case while it comes to the U.S. – Turkish relations.
Investigation which is boosted by several first-hand witnesses throughout the article is confirming that how Erdogan saw the case threat to his family, friends and allies and spent considerable time and political capital to press U.S. President to squash it. It is not immediately clear what Trump has gotten in return for his efforts beside his steady stream of income from his Istanbul Trump Towers.
Erdogan, just last week, confirmed to the journalists that Turkey has tested Russian-made S-400 air defense missiles much to the dissappointment of the Washington government as well as other allies.