In a potentially monumental development depending on how the story plays on Capitol Hill, Donald Trump once asked Rex Tillerson to intervene in the case of Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian gold trader at the center of a high-profile scheme to skirt US sanctions on Iran.
Zarrab was being prosecuted in New York at the time and had hired Rudy Giuliani for his legal team. He has long-standing ties to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
According to a trio of sources who spoke to Bloomberg, Trump pressured his then-secretary of state “to help persuade the Justice department to drop” the case. Tillerson, the sources said, steadfastly refused, and “immediately” voiced his consternation to John Kelly. The request, Tillerson told the chief of staff, “would be illegal”.
This is a potential bombshell, especially considering it comes at a time when lawmakers are vexed at Trump’s Sunday evening decision to pull US troops from Syria’s border with Turkey, effectively green-lighting an incursion by Erdogan’s forces.
Trump has been accused of pandering to the autocrat on a number of occasions, but this latest example of the president placating Erdogan has already produced lethal consequences for the US-allied Kurds in Syria.
Additionally, it raises more questions about Trump and Giuliani conducting shadow diplomacy outside of official government channels.
According to Bloomberg’s reporting, Trump’s request of Tillerson came in “the second half of 2017”. That would be when the Mueller probe was ramping up in earnest. Giuliani was not yet Trump’s personal attorney. “It isn’t clear whether Trump considered his request for Tillerson to intervene to be improper or was just testing the bounds of what he could do as president on an issue that could provide diplomatic benefits while also helping Giuliani, a longtime supporter”, Bloomberg writes.
In late November of 2017, documents introduced in federal court in Manhattan detailed recorded phone calls that found Zarrab invoking Erdogan’s name. As The New York Times wrote at the time, “Zarrab’s testimony marked the first time Erdogan has been implicated in the alleged sanctions busting, which first surfaced when the Turkish police uncovered the activity in 2013 – only to have their investigation quashed by Mr. Erdogan’s government”.
Erdogan had long sought to have the case dropped. He variously (and vociferously) debated the issue with Joe Biden, had his wife beg Jill Biden to intervene, and in his last two phone calls with Obama, similarly appealed to have the matter resolved.
“Our operating assumption was that Erdogan’s obsession with the case was that if it moved forward, information would come out that would damage his family, and ultimately him”, one former senior Obama official told the Washington Post.
As with all things related to Erdogan, there’s a connection to Pennsylvania resident Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara insists operates a vast network of conspirators engaged in a perpetual attempt to undermine the Turkish president’s rule. Gulen was, according to Erdogan, behind the failed 2016 coup and also behind the leaked evidence which implicated Zarrab.
Erdogan once told Biden that Preet Bharara was “a Gulenist tool.” He also demanded that Biden fire Bharara. Of course Bharara was ultimately fired — only not by Biden. But rather by Donald Trump.
In their piece, Bloomberg correctly points out that Giuliani was knee-deep in the whole thing.
“As he was with Ukraine, Giuliani was so steeped in events in Turkey that State Department officials grew increasingly alarmed”, the article reads. “Earlier in 2017, he had traveled to the country and met with Erdogan as part of his effort to seek a resolution in Zarrab’s case”.
In March of 2017, when Rex Tillerson visited Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated Erdogan’s demand that Gulen be handed over to Turkish authorities. While standing next to Tillerson at a press conference, Cavusoglu accused Bharara (who had been fired by Trump just two weeks earlier) of being a Gulen pawn.
Just a month before that March meeting between Tillerson and Cavusoglu, Erdogan met with Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, who Zarrab had added to his legal team.
Giuliani called Bharara on February 24 and told him about his planned trip to Turkey. On that trip, Giuliani attempted to secure some kind of concessions from Erdogan in exchange for the release of Zarrab.
Bharara was fired by Trump just 15 days later.
Joon H. Kim — who became the acting US attorney in Manhattan after Bharara was fired — wrote to the judge arguing that the court was “entitled to better understand” the roles of Giuliani and Mukasey. His office also said Giuliani and Mukasey “sought to meet other officials in the US government” to discuss Zarrab.
It goes without saying that all of the above was laughably suspect at the time – it’s even more so now.
Notably, many of those events unfolded in and around the time when Trump asked James Comey if he was willing to “let Michael Flynn go.” Flynn was, of course, a paid surrogate for Turkey.
As you can see, this rabbit hole is very – very – deep, and given the events of the last three months, you can be absolutely sure there are any number of House Democrats fighting with each other to see who gets to dive down it first.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Giuliani contradicted himself, as he’s wont to do. First, he claimed he never talked to Trump about Zarrab. Then, he changed his story to a narrative about a possible “prisoner swap” between the US and Turkey, where Christian pastor Andrew Brunson was held until October of 2018.
Asked by Bloomberg if he ever spoke directly to Tillerson about Zarrab, Giuliani said “you have no right to know that”.