Considering the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and who was once an ally of the Turkish president. Erdogan blamed Gulen for helping bring to light a wide-ranging scheme to help Iran evade international sanctions by laundering money through sales of gold — a plan in which Erdogan was eventually implicated. When members of the military tried to oust Erdogan in 2016, Gulen was again blamed. Getting Gulen back to Turkey to face criminal charges related to the coup attempt became a central priority of Erdogan’s.
He had some assistance from Trump allies.
Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, did work for a company affiliated with the Turkish government during the 2016 campaign. Before Trump took office, Flynn reportedly raised the idea of surreptitiously extraditing Gulen to Turkey — in essence, kidnapping him.
Flynn didn’t last long in his administration position after it was revealed that he had lied to investigators about a conversation he’d had with Russia’s ambassador. Once Trump was in office, the main advocate for handing Gulen over to Turkey was instead Trump ally (and, eventually, attorney) Rudolph W. Giuliani, according to recent Washington Post reporting.
“The former New York mayor brought up Gulen so frequently with Trump during visits to the White House that one former official described the subject as Giuliani’s ‘hobby horse,’ ” The Post reported Tuesday. “He was so focused on the issue — ‘it was all Gulen,’ recalled a second former official — that White House aides worried that Giuliani was making the case on behalf of the Turkish government, former officials said.”
Trump, we reported, was “receptive to the idea.”
In August, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) spoke on the phone with a Russian radio personality who was impersonating Turkey’s minister of defense. The Russian hoaxster raised the Gulen issue, which Graham twice suggested was in the hands of federal investigators.
Trump “said he’s monitoring the situation we’ll see what our FBI comes back [with],” Graham said.
Concerning the Turkish state bank Halkbank. “But he was very keen on the bank case,” Graham added. “You know the one involving the Turkish bank? He does not want that case to hurt our relationship. He mentioned that twice.”
The “bank case” is a criminal case centered on a Turkish state bank, Halkbank, which was allegedly one of the conduits for the sanctions-evasion scheme. A high-ranking official with the bank has already been convicted on related charges, after testimony from a gold trader named Reza Zarrab who was an apparent mastermind of the effort.
That Graham raised the Halkbank case with someone he thought was Turkey’s minister of defense is telling. (It’s not clear that the Russian radio host understood what Graham was saying; he appeared to think Graham was talking about sanctions on banks.) The comment above came during Graham’s second conversation with the Russian/fake Turkish official, after Graham claims to have spoken with Trump about their first conversation. It’s only after having spoken with Trump that the bank case comes up, and it’s the only new issue introduced by Graham in the second call.
Erdogan was quite focused on the broader case as it evolved. Before Zarrab worked with U.S. prosecutors, Erdogan tried to get him returned to Turkey as well. Giuliani was involved in that effort, too, serving as an attorney for Zarrab. At one point, Trump reportedly instructed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to try to intervene on Zarrab’s behalf with the Justice Department. Tillerson declined to do so.
Trump’s letter to Erdogan was sent Oct. 9. Erdogan ignored Trump’s warnings about targeting Kurds in Syria and moved against them the following day. On Oct. 15, the Justice Department announced criminal charges against Halkbank.
Holding back on new sanctions. During Graham’s call with the Russian, he repeatedly noted that U.S. law necessitated the imposition of sanctions against Turkey for having purchased an air defense system, the S-400, from Russia.
The United States and Turkey had a sanctions tit-for-tat earlier in the administration after Trump imposed sanctions in an effort to force Turkey to release an imprisoned pastor. (There’s reason to think Erdogan arrested the pastor in an attempt to trade him back to the United States for Gulen.) Those sanctions are what Trump has repeatedly referred to (including in the letter) as his demonstrated record of destroying Turkey’s economy.
“The president does not want to sanction Turkey” over the S-400 sale, Graham told the Russian. “He thinks that’s crazy. I personally think it’s crazy.” Graham was pushing for the polar opposite of sanctions: a free-trade agreement between the countries.
But the broader point is important: Trump was withholding sanctions, a decision that could certainly be seen as not imposing new problems on Turkey, if not solving existing ones.
Dropping charges against Erdogan bodyguards. Erdogan first visited Trump in Washington in May 2017. After leaving the White House, he traveled to the Turkish ambassador’s house in Northwest Washington, where a brawl broke out between Erdogan opponents and supporters. Some of those supporters, it soon became clear, were bodyguards working for Erdogan (who were, perhaps, brawling at his direction). Fifteen faced criminal charges for their involvement in the fighting.
Until the government dropped charges against 11 of the accused. The administration denied that politics played a role, but the timing was suspicious: Charges against four were dropped shortly before Erdogan returned to Washington in November 2017 and charges against seven others were dropped before Tillerson traveled to Turkey.
In an interview with Bloomberg in August 2018, Trump made a cryptic remark about Erdogan: “You know, I got back somebody for him, as you know.” It’s not clear what he meant.
There is a necessary tit-for-tat in international relations, and understandably so. That’s probably more the case with Trump, whose administration is largely predicated on dealmaking. In this case, it’s interesting to consider the pitch that Trump was making to Erdogan, which things he thought could be used as bargaining chips to prevent an attack in Syria, something Trump in June described as Erdogan’s desire to “wipe out” the Kurds.
Speaking to the person who he thought was Turkey’s minister of defense, Graham sought to reassure the Turkish government about Trump’s focus on Halkbank.
“The president wants to be helpful within the limits of his power,” Graham said. It’s interesting to consider what Erdogan might have gained without those limits.