To some extent, Trump clearly admired — perhaps envied — Erdogan’s style of leadership and consolidation of authority. But Trump also approached Erdogan the way he has other authoritarians who in the past would have or did have strained relationships with the United States: as potential economic and political partners, regardless of their backgrounds.
In October, Trump unexpectedly handed Erdogan a big geopolitical victory, agreeing to withdraw most American troops from northern Syria and allowing Erdogan to take action against Kurdish forces in the region. A Kurdish independence movement has long frustrated Erdogan, who positions the Syrian Kurds as dangerous terrorists. Trump’s withdrawal was seen as giving a green light to Erdogan to quickly eradicate the Kurds — putting a group that had been allied with the United States at significant risk.
In response to criticism that he abandoned the Kurds to Erdogan, Trump wrote an unusual letter to Erdogan.
“Let’s work out a good deal!” the letter began. Erdogan didn’t “want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people,” Trump wrote.
“I have worked hard to solve some of your problems,” the letter later continued. “Don’t let the world down. You can make a great deal.”
This transactionalism in service of preventing a genocide was tonally strange. But that line — “I have worked hard to solve some of your problems” — was pointed. Trump was suggesting that Erdogan had made requests and that Trump was working to fulfill those requests. When the letter was published, we walked through some of the possibilities, including the possible extradition of a cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who resides in the United States (and whom Flynn reportedly discussed surreptitiously extraditing and sending to Turkey).
A copy of a new book from one of Flynn’s successors, former national security adviser John Bolton, offers some additional insight into what Erdogan asked — and what Trump promised.
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey obtained a copy of the book, which will be released next week. Dawsey writes:
“In May 2018, Bolton says, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan handed Trump a memo claiming innocence for a Turkish firm under investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for violating Iranian sanctions.‘Trump then told Erdogan 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,’ Bolton writes.”
That firm is presumably Halkbank, a state-owned bank in Turkey. It allegedly sits at the center of an effort undertaken several years ago to evade sanctions imposed on Iran by using gold to buy Iranian oil. Reza Zarrab, a gold trader with ties to both Turkey and Iran, was indicted for his role in the alleged scheme and provided testimony linking both Halkbank and, less directly, Erdogan to the plan.
At one point before agreeing to aid American investigators, Zarrab retained former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as counsel. Giuliani is now Trump’s lawyer. During a meeting in 2017, with Giuliani in the room, Trump asked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to get the charges against Zarrab dropped, according to previous Post reporting. Tillerson declined. Later that year, Zarrab flipped. In early 2018, a senior bank official was convicted on charges related to the alleged evasion.
That set the stage for the May 2018 conversation reported by Bolton, who at that point would have been on the job for about a month.
We’ve known for a while both that Erdogan was pushing Trump to abandon the prosecution and that Trump was receptive to the idea. Bloomberg News reported in October that Trump told Erdogan in an April 2019 call that Attorney General William P. Barr and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would be tasked with handling the case — a pledge that Bloomberg News describes as an “unusual intervention by a president to get his top cabinet officials involved in an active federal investigation.” Since then, of course, we’ve seen Barr’s Justice Department be actively involved in other prosecutions with political significance to Trump, including that of his former ally Roger Stone and the prosecution of Flynn himself for lying to investigators.
“Discussions over a deal that would resolve the issue out of court made little headway before Barr took over as attorney general in February and then became involved in the discussions,” Bloomberg News reported at the time. In February, CNN reported that Barr had, in fact, pressured the U.S. attorney handling the Halkbank case to make a deal.
What the Bolton revelation reinforces is the extent to which Trump infused the Justice Department’s activity with politics. It wasn’t simply that Erdogan raised valid points about Halkbank’s innocence, making a compelling case to Trump. Instead, Trump appears to have seen an opportunity both to deliver a victory for his ally and to uproot prosecutors whom he hadn’t appointed — and who, in the ongoing context of his feud with a perceived “Deep State,” were therefore presumably hostile to his goals.
Step back a bit and consider what Bolton outlines: that Trump agreed to try to help bury a criminal case centered on evading sanctions against Iran. Such sanctions, of course, have become a central part of Trump’s relationship with Iran after he decided to abandon the agreement that scaled those sanctions back in exchange for limits on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. In service of this goal, Bolton indicates, Trump actively disparaged federal prosecutors and, seemingly, worked to deliver what Erdogan wanted.
There’s no obvious geopolitical reason for Trump to be so gracious to Erdogan, particularly given the relationship between the United States and Turkey. It’s hard not to remember, though, that Trump’s relationship with Erdogan predates his time in politics.
Whatever the reason, there’s plenty of evidence that resolving the Halkbank issue was central to Trump’s concerns about Turkey. In August, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) engaged in two phone calls with someone he believed to be Turkey’s minister of defense but who was actually a Russian radio personality. In the second of those calls, which the Russian later published, Graham noted Trump’s interest in the Halkbank case.
“He was very keen on the bank case,” Graham said of a conversation he’d had with Trump after the first conversation with the impostor. “You know the one involving the Turkish bank? He does not want that case to hurt our relationship. He mentioned that twice.”
Two months later, Erdogan publicly ignored Trump’s letter in which the president reminded him of how he’d tried to deliver on his behalf. The Turkish president went so far as to tell the world that he threw the letter in the garbage. On Oct. 10, the day after the letter was sent, Erdogan moved his troops into the Kurdish territory in Syria.
On Oct. 15, the Justice Department announced an indictment against Halkbank.