It’s a tale that connects some of Trump’s closest advisers: former national security adviser Michael Flynn, personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, and senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Bolton says he warned Attorney General William P. Barr in April 2019 that Trump’s repeated efforts to help Erdogan showed his “penchant to, in effect, give personal favors to dictators he liked.”
The Turkey story begins, like much about Trump, with his personal business interests. When he launched Trump Towers Istanbul in April 2012, his daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted thanks to Erdogan, the prime minister at the time, for attending. With them was a Turkish businessman named Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, whom Donald Trump described at the opening as a “great friend” of Ivanka. Kushner, her husband, was there, too.
This enthusiasm for Erdogan was shared by some of Trump’s close advisers. During the 2016 campaign, Flynn’s consulting firm received more than $500,000 from a Turkish businessman who headed the state-run Turkish business federation. On Election Day that year, Flynn published an op-ed supporting Erdogan’s campaign against Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in the United States, whose organization Flynn likened to “a dangerous sleeper terror network.” Erdogan wanted Gulen extradited, and Flynn’s piece seemed to lay the groundwork.
Erdogan was obsessed with another U.S. legal issue — an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York into a Turkish bank called Halkbank and a Turkish-Iranian gold dealer named Reza Zarrab. In an October 2017 column, I revealed a bizarre set of meetings on Sept. 21, 2016, in New York when Erdogan and his wife pleaded for Zarrab’s release in separate visits with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. U.S. officials told me the Erdogans feared the Justice Department investigation might implicate the Turkish leader’s family.
Erdogan’s government in October 2016 arrested Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, claiming he was linked to Gulen. Some U.S. officials told me at the time they feared Brunson would be used as a bargaining chip for Gulen’s extradition.
Trump’s election gave Erdogan a new opening. Flynn was fired as national security adviser in February 2017, but Ankara had a new channel in Ivanka Trump’s friend Yalcindag, who was named head of the state-run business group “due to his close ties with United States President Donald Trump,” according to a Turkish newspaper.
The campaign to end the Halkbank prosecution and extradite Gulen accelerated. On Feb. 24, 2017, Giuliani contacted then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to say that he was traveling to Ankara to represent Zarrab and, according to a Giuliani statement filed in federal court, was pressing the Justice Department for “some agreement between the United States and Turkey” to boost U.S. “security interests.”
Trump fired Bharara in March 2017, but the Halkbank investigation continued under the new U.S. attorney, Geoffrey Berman — infuriating Erdogan. Brunson remained in prison, and Trump wanted him released, but Erdogan escalated his pressure when he called Trump in July 2018 and claimed that Gulen was responsible for the Halkbank investigation, too.
“He wanted the Halkbank case dropped, unlikely now that U.S. prosecutors had their hooks sunk deep into the bank’s fraudulent operations,” Bolton writes. Trump wanted Brunson freed, and he didn’t like being threatened, so he soon announced that he would be imposing sanctions against Turkey.
Enter Kushner. According to Bolton, Vice President Pence proposed that Kushner call Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Bolton writes: “I briefed [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin on this new ‘son-in-law channel,’ and they both exploded.” Brunson was finally released in October 2018 and arrived in Washington, where he had an emotional meeting with Trump.
Trump appeared ready to derail the Halkbank case when he met Erdogan on Dec. 1, 2018, at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Erdogan told Trump the bank was “totally innocent,” Bolton writes. Trump “then told Erdogan that he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people.”
Barr hoped to broker a settlement, but he, too, was troubled by Trump’s conduct. Bolton writes that when he met the attorney general for lunch on April 23 to complain about Trump’s “fondness for dictators,” Barr responded that “he was very worried about the appearances Trump was creating, especially his remarks on Halkbank to Erdogan in Buenos Aires at the G20 meeting.”
But Trump couldn’t fix this Turkey problem. On Oct. 15, as the Ukraine scandal was brewing, Berman’s office indicted Halkbank. Eight months later, Trump fired Berman, just as he had his predecessor Bharara. No explanation was given.
The Halkbank case continues — Trump’s assurances to the Turkish president notwithstanding.