Friday, October 30, 2020

Turkey Trot


Illustration via Quartz, April 2017.

I'll get to Trump in a minute, but first: imagine you're Vice President Joe Biden, August 2016, on an official visit to Turkey five or so weeks after the coup attempt in Turkey that July, and President Erdoğan gets you under a tree at some point and starts complaining about this state-owned bank, Halkbank, that the New York Southern District is investigating for evading US law by smuggling billions of dollars' worth of gold and other commodities into the sanctioned Islamic Republican of Iran—they've already indicted a guy, Reza Zarrab, and Erdoğan claims the whole thing is a hoax invented by his enemy the cult leader in Pennsylvania, and can Biden please get Obama to make it go away by firing the US attorney in the case, Preet Bharara, and the judge, and extradite the cult leader because he's the one who did the coup as well?

(It's also widely believed in a variety of places that the cleric in question, Fethullah Gulén, had in fact nothing to do with the coup, which Erdoğan has been using in the four years since as a kind of personal Reichstag Fire enabling him to move against all sorts of perceived enemies, depriving them of their livelihoods and public voices and jailing tens of thousands, and Erdoğan's regime has been credibly accused of a practice not at all distant from Vladimir Putin's or Donald Trump's of "post-truth politics".)

We know how Joe responded to the last bit, thanks to this big Times report by Eric Lipton and Benjamin Weiser, and also because the answer is publicly available: with a courteous, but firm no: Sorry man, but no can do:

I know it’s hard -- I don’t know -- I suspect it’s hard for people to understand that as powerful as my country is, as powerful as Barack Obama is as President, he has no authority under our Constitution to extradite anyone.  Only a federal court can do that.  Nobody else can do that.  If the President were to take this into his own hands, what would happen would be he would be impeached for violating the separation of powers. 

And we obviously know that President Obama didn't fire Preet Bharara either, and the Halkbank case didn't go away, so Biden didn't obey those requests either,

Now imagine you're President-Elect Donald J. Trump, with a Turkish income of something like $650,000 a year for the Istanbul hotel named after you, and Erdoğan asks you the same investigation (which is said to threaten members of Erdoğan's own family and political party). We don't in this case know how he may have responded (e.g. in the congratulatory call of 9 November 2016, for which we have a readout only from the Turkish government), because it isn't public, but we do know a good deal about what Trump and his circle have done since, namely:

November 2016: Decided, after reports surfaced of Flynn's involvement with Turkish government, not to nominate Flynn for CIA director but National Security Advisor instead, explaining that it was because NSC post didn't require Senate confirmation, inspiring a letter to Pence from Elijah Cummings:

Recent news reports have revealed that Lt. Gen. Flynn was receiving classified briefings during the presidential campaign while his consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, Inc., was being paid to lobby the U.S. Government on behalf of a foreign government’s interests. Lt. Gen. Flynn’s General Counsel and Principal, Robert Kelley, confirmed that they were hired by a foreign company to lobby for Turkish interests. 

9 March 2017: After Flynn registered as a foreign agent, Spicer and Pence lied flagrantly about their and Trump's knowledge of his Turkish activities

A reporter asks Spicer: “Was the president aware that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was acting as a foreign agent when he appointed him to be the national security adviser?” Spicer replies: “I don’t believe that that was known.” In a Fox News interview, Pence says of Flynn’s work as a foreign agent: “Hearing that story today was the first I heard of it.”

11 March 2017: Fired Preet Bharara (after Bharara refused to take a phone call from Trump in the concern that, as he later said, "had Donald Trump continued to cultivate a direct personal relationship with me, it's my strong belief that at some point, given the history, the President of the United States would have asked me to do something inappropriate"

2017 (before 16 May): Explored cutting off federal funding to Gulén's network of US charter schools

September (?) 2017: Intervened, in the presence of two of Zarrab's attorneys, Rudolph Giuliani (who was to become Trump's personal lawyer in October 2018) and Michael Mukasey, in a proposed resolution of the Zarrab case in which the gold trader would be exchanged for an American prisoner in Turkey, pastor Andrew Brunson:

With Giuliani and Mukasey in the room, Trump reportedly asked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to try to get the Justice Department to drop the case against Zarrab. The president also suggested he speak with Giuliani about the case. Tillerson refused.

(One of those cases where Tillerson later complained Trump asked him to do something illegal; interesting that not only Giuliani but also Mukasey, a former attorney general of the US, didn't know that)

1 December 2018: At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, as later reported by John Bolton, listened to Erdoğan's argument that Halkbank's trade with Iran didn't violate sanctions because it wasn't in US dollars; "Well, it looks convincing to me," said Trump

Trump, Bolton wrote, “told Erdoğan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District [of New York] prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people.” (Aubrey Belford and Adam Klasfeld)

14 December: After a Trump-Erdoğan phone call, DOJ informed Southern District New York that Mnuchin, Pompeo, and acting attorney general Whitaker would get directly involved in Halkbank case

June 2019: As SDNY worked with Halkbank to put together a settlement (but "the prosecutors were left with the impression that bank officials felt they had all the leverage because of the relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdoğan"), attorney general Barr asked US attorney Geoffrey Berman to allow DOJ to drop criminal charges against Halkbank officials and suspend investigations against others altogether

10 October: In a live radio conversation with a Russian radio host pretending to be the Turkish defense minister, a thoroughly spoofed Lindsey Graham shared his views on how Trump feels:

“This case involving the Turkish bank?” Graham said. “He’s very sensitive. The president wants to be helpful within the limits of his power.”

He mentioned it again a bit later, describing his conversations with Trump during their interactions.

“He was very keen on the bank case,” Graham said. “You know the one involving the Turkish bank? He does not want that case to hurt our relationship.”

“He mentioned that twice,” he added.

15 October 2019: As Trump came under intense political pressure for his decision to abandon Kurdish troops in Syria after a phone call from Erdoğan the week before, DOJ turned around and allowed SDNY to file charges: "a six-count indictment that same day charging Halkbank with money laundering, bank fraud and conspiracy to violate the Iran sanctions"

20 June 2020: Fired Geoffrey Berman—DOJ citing "his handling of the Halkbank matter, including his blocking of the proposed global settlement" as a reason.

In other words, except for that one time when Erdoğan talked Trump into the worst political blunder of the year, exploiting who knows what kind of pressure—I measure it by reports of his rage as he hung up on the Turkish president and the crazy threats he issued on Twitter after doing exactly what Erdoğan wanted in regard to Syria

—he's consistently worked to send Gulén to trial and prison in Turkey, free Zarrab, and end the Halkbank case, from the start of his presidency.

If you've ever wondered, as I have, whether Donald Trump is guilty of failing to register as a foreign agent,  you may find the Turkish case is a little clearer than the Russian one. 

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