The New York Times reported Monday night that the former national security adviser raised concerns that Trump was granting personal favors to the autocratic leaders of China and Turkey. When he brought those concerns to Barr, according to Bolton’s book, Barr also worried that Trump had at least created the appearance of trying to interfere in what were supposed to be independent legal matters.
Barr spokeswoman Kerri Kupec disputed the idea that the attorney general thought Trump did anything improper — though Bolton claims only that Barr was concerned about the appearance of Trump’s actions. “There was no discussion of ‘personal favors’ or ‘undue influence’ on investigations, nor did Attorney General Barr state that the President’s conversations with foreign leaders was improper,” Kupec said.
The questions about Trump’s actions regarding the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE and the Turkish bank Halkbank aren’t altogether new, but the revelation does suggest there was even more significant behind-the-scenes concern about his dealings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than previously known.
On Turkey, there has been a concern that Trump was bowing to Erdogan’s efforts to get him to interfere in the case of Halkbank and a related matter involving a Turkish Iranian gold trader named Reza Zarrab, who has been represented by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Bolton and Barr aren’t the only ones who have reportedly raised red flags; so, too, did former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, whom The Washington Post reported in October rebuffed Trump’s efforts to get him involved:
President Trump sought to enlist then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson in the fall of 2017 to work with Rudolph W. Giuliani to help stop the prosecution of a Turkish Iranian gold trader represented by the former New York mayor, according to people with knowledge of the request.Trump urged Tillerson in an Oval Office meeting to try to craft a diplomatic “deal” to stop the U.S. case against Reza Zarrab on corruption charges in exchange for concessions from Turkey. The request shocked the then-secretary of state, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations involving the president.At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was personally lobbying Trump to get the charges dropped....Tillerson was so unsettled by the extraordinary request to intervene in an ongoing criminal investigation that he complained to then-chief of staff John F. Kelly that he believed it was inappropriate, according to a former administration official. Kelly told him to disregard it, the official said.
Trump reportedly even told Erdogan that they would be working on it:
President Donald Trump assigned his attorney general and treasury secretary to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated pleas to avoid charges against one of Turkey’s largest banks, according to two people familiar with the matter.In an April phone call, Trump told Erdogan that William Barr and Steven Mnuchin would handle the issue, the people said. In the months that followed, no action was taken against Halkbank for its alleged involvement in a massive scheme to evade sanctions on Iran. That changed when an undated indictment was unveiled Tuesday — a day after Trump imposed sanctions over Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.It marked an unusual intervention by a president to get his top cabinet officials involved in an active federal investigation. It’s not clear whether Trump instructed Barr and Mnuchin to satisfy Erdogan’s pleas or whether the president was simply tired of being asked about it.
Bloomberg also reported on a significant effort to get Turkey to stop raising the issue with Trump, apparently either for fear that it was working or because Trump was indeed tired of dealing with it. Bolton at the time reportedly told a Turkish official, Ibrahim Kalin, to stop raising the issue with Trump because he wouldn’t personally deal with it. Bloomberg also reported that Barr told the top prosecutor in Turkey, Abdulhamit Gul, that he needed to instead deal directly with prosecutors in New York, who were handling the case.
That jibes with the new allegations in Bolton’s book because it suggests Barr was trying to make sure the president wasn’t becoming involved in an independent legal matter.
There are other indications that Trump had taken a keen interest in the case. As The Post’s Philip Bump reported in October, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told a Russian radio host who he thought was Turkey’s defense minister that “the president wants to be helpful within the limits of his power.” Graham said Trump “was very keen on the bank case” and “does not want that case to hurt our relationship.”
“We don’t want the bank case to get out of hand,” Graham said.
Trump has made little secret of his interest in crafting a relationship with Erdogan. He has been surrounded by advisers who worked with Turkey, including Giuliani and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. He also said, before becoming president, that he had something of a “conflict of interest” with regard to Turkey because he has property there.
“I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said in December 2015. “It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one. … And I’ve gotten to know Turkey very well. They’re amazing people. They’re incredible people. They have a strong leader.”
However substantial the effort to get Trump to interfere in the Halkbank case, it apparently fell through when the United States withdrew from northern Syria and Turkey moved in, prompting outrage and new sanctions against Turkey. The Justice Department quickly unsealed the indictment, charging Halkbank with helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
The ZTE matter has also raised eyebrows and prompted allies to question Trump’s actions. The Chinese telecommunications giant pleaded guilty in 2017 to violating U.S. sanctions by working with North Korea and Iran. But in 2018, Trump lifted sanctions on ZTE that China worried might put the firm out of business. That drew vociferous opposition from Republican members of Congress, who prepared legislation that would have thwarted Trump, only to eventually back off. Some Republicans had worried that Trump was bowing to Xi in hopes of forging a trade-war deal.
It’s not unheard of for presidents to use criminal matters as leverage in negotiations with foreign countries, but generally such deals are only cut after extensive reviews by the Justice and State departments, as well as consultation with the prosecutors handling the case. The concern is that Trump is disregarding that process and undercutting prosecutors, especially when dealing with autocratic foreign leaders.
And according to Bolton, it’s concerning enough that even Barr saw an issue with it.