With the Trump administration, it’s very difficult to determine what’s a footnote, and what’s worth talking about.
That ambiguity stems directly from the administration’s penchant for dishonesty, which is on full display in one way or another each and every day.
Of particular concern are any and all interactions the president has with other world leaders, including and especially Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made a habit of exploiting the US president’s lack of foreign policy experience, generalized ignorance of global affairs and affinity for strongmen.
In October, that exploitation took the form of Erdogan convincing Trump to countenance Turkey’s cross-border incursion in Syria. Ankara has also enjoyed an extraordinary amount of leniency with regard to the S-400 purchases.
But it’s not just Syria and the Russian-made missile systems. Trump has reportedly been on the verge of acquiescing to Erdogan’s long-standing demand to extradite (or, at the least, scrutinize) Fethullah Gulen on several occasions.
Additionally, the president once lobbied Rex Tillerson to intercede on behalf of Reza Zarrab (who just happened to be Rudy Giuliani’s client at the time) in the Halkbank matter.
In October, after a lengthy and inexplicable delay, the US finally charged Halkbank in the long-running, high-profile case that implicated officials at the highest levels of the Turkish government, including Erdogan. The timing was obviously not a coincidence – Trump was wielding the charges as leverage in the Syria debacle.
Erdogan has been lobbying Trump for quite a while to have the White House step in to block charges against the bank, and a newly-public letter from Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary Frederick Vaughan catalogues a series of chats Steve Mnuchin had with senior Turkish officials including a meeting during a working lunch earlier this month when Erdogan visited Washington.
The letter was a response to an irritated inquiry from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. Mnuchin met with Turkish officials seven times from April 22, 2017, to the November meeting, including a bilateral with Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak in July of 2018, just after Erdogan consolidated power and handed the reins of the economy to Albayrak. At the time, the US was busy sanctioning Turkey in the Andrew Brunson matter. There were rumors that Ankara was using Brunson as a pawn to extract concessions from the US on Halkbank.
Last month, Wyden sent a letter to Mnuchin asking if Treasury played a role in stifling or otherwise influencing the investigation into the lender.
The letter from Vaughan confirms that after a phone call with Erdogan in April, Trump “referred the issue” to Mnuchin and William Barr.
The Halkbank case seemingly went cold for five whole months, until October, when the US suddenly charged the bank, just as tensions were flaring over the Syria incursion.
In case it’s not clear enough, Trump (and Mnuchin and probably Barr) likely put the case on ice at the behest of Erdogan (effectively giving orders to the US court system through Trump), right up until the White House felt like Ankara had overplayed its hand in Syria.
At that point, US prosecutors rolled out an undated indictment.