PROOF OF CORRUPTION | SETH ABRAMSON | St. Martin's Publishing Group

PROOF OF CORRUPTION

BRIBERY, IMPEACHMENT, AND PANDEMIC IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

SETH ABRAMSON

PROOF OF CORRUPTION

THE THIRD EXCERPT FROM PROOF OF CORRUPTION

NOW AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER

 

Trump Towers is only the most visible element of Trump’s self-confessed “conflict of interest” in Turkey, however. In October 2019, NBC reports on a pending federal lawsuit initiated by 215 members of Congress that alleges Trump is “at least a partial owner of 119 business ventures in Turkey.”32 Per a major investigative report on Trump’s conflicts of interest with Turkey by NBC, “the Turks are also the top patrons of any country at Trump properties worldwide. So there are a lot of business connections there. And Ivanka Trump is also close to some of these [Turkish] business partners. One of them, the one who is close to Erdogan, [Aydin Dogan son-in-law] Mehmet [Ali] Yalcindag, also attended Trump’s victory party in Manhattan [on Election Day in 2016]. They are that close.”33

According to NBC, Yalcindag has conceded that he is a “close friend of Trump and his family,” while the president has termed the Trumps’ relationship with Dogan and his family in Turkey a “great, great friendship,” calling them “beyond [business] partners.”34 Yalcindag will eventually become the president of the Turkish-American Business Council (TAIK); in May 2017, days after Erdogan’s visit to the White House, and at the height of the Turkish president’s lobbying of President Trump over two major geopolitical issues—the extradition of Fethullah Gulen to Ankara from Pennsylvania and the release of a Turkish businessman from U.S. custody—TAIK holds a “three-day conference inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, an event attended by U.S. government notables including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.”35 In 2018, Yalcindag publicly “express[es] confidence that Trump would ultimately sympathize with Turkey’s approach to foreign policy,” telling a group of reporters that “U.S. President Donald Trump thinks regional problems should be resolved by regional actors. In this regard, the U.S. should see what is happening on Turkey’s borders from the point of view of its strategic ally, Turkey.”36

 

Trump’s 2016 support for Erdogan comes despite the fact that, post-coup, Erdogan had “locked up thousands of people . . . including many who had nothing to do with [the coup].”37 As candidate Trump expresses support for Erdogan, so too does his campaign’s top national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pens a pro-Erdogan op-ed in The Hill; Flynn is at the time in the midst of a secret $530,000 consulting contract with Turkey—despite having failed to register with the federal government as a foreign lobbyist, as required by law.38 Echoing his adviser Flynn, after the coup Trump takes the position, per NBC, that “the U.S. shouldn’t criticize Erdogan” for what Human Rights Watch will describe, again per NBC reporting, as a campaign of “taking over dozens of television and radio stations and arresting reporters.”39 Instead of condemnation, Trump issues a public statement giving Erdogan “great credit . . . for turning [the coup] around.”40

Soon, however, Fethullah Gulen—the Pennsylvania-dwelling Turkish cleric who, according to the Washington Post, Erdogan “blame[s]” for the coup—becomes a significant complication for Trump’s ongoing relationship with the Turkish government.41 During the same period Flynn is receiving more than half a million dollars from Turkey and advising Trump on foreign policy and national security, he “reportedly,” says the Post, “raise[s] the idea of surreptitiously extraditing Gulen to Turkey—in essence, kidnapping him.”42 According to The Guardian, the conspiracy that Flynn allegedly goes on to participate in would have involved kidnapping Gulen and “fly[ing] him to an island prison in Turkey in return for $15 million”; the planning for the scheme involves multiple meetings between Flynn and several Americans and Turks, including one December 2016 gathering at “a prohibition-era New York speakeasy patronized by Trump.”43 By then, Trump had already “named Flynn his national security advisor,” and the retired general was “playing a central role in [Trump’s presidential] transition.”44 The Guardian notes that, as a Trump transition official, Flynn was potentially open to bribery charges for his role in the plot; while Trump’s knowledge of Flynn’s illicit activities remains unclear, when they ultimately come to light the president offers no condemnation of his former adviser, only praise.45

As Flynn is allegedly plotting with the Turks during the presidential transition period, NBC reports—quoting from the congressional lawsuit against Trump for violating the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause—that “foreign diplomats . . . [from] Turkey” received “a sales pitch about [Trump’s] newest hotel,” the Trump International Hotel in D.C.46 “Four events related to the Turkish government” are subsequently held there, including at least one event that included “two advisers to Erdogan and the [Turkish] ministers of trade, defense and treasury.”47

 

In March 2017, just before Rudy Giuliani begins working on Trump’s behalf—purportedly for free—to convince Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to take over the Manafort investigation from NABU, the former New York City mayor takes on a new client: Turkish and Iranian citizen Reza Zarrab, a trader who at the time “held embarrassing and politically damaging information about Erdogan and other top Turkish officials in [Erdogan’s] government.”48 The New York Times, citing federal investigators, reports that Erdogan and his son-in-law, Turkish finance minister Berat Albayrak, “personally approved” a Turkey-Iran “sanctions-evasion scheme” involving Zarrab—doing so, incredibly, “even after officials in the United States had arrested [Zarrab].”49 It is telling that Erdogan believed, according to the Times report, that he could, without consequence, “publicly dismiss[ ] the sanctions on Iran [under Trump] as American policy that was not binding on Turkey.”50

Concerned that Zarrab might reveal sensitive details about the Turkish government to federal law enforcement while incarcerated in the United States for “orchestrating a multibillion-dollar conspiracy to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran,” Erdogan spends the spring and summer of 2017—a period during which Zarrab’s attorney Giuliani is negotiating with the Ukrainians on Trump’s behalf—“ repeatedly lobb[ying] Trump to release Zarrab” to Turkey.51 In 2017 and 2018, Albayrak successfully lobbies Trump’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, to delay action against the state-owned Turkish bank, Halkbank, which had allegedly been involved in the sanctions-evasion scheme.52 In late 2019, The Hill reports on a Treasury Department finding that during the course of Albayrak’s lobbying of Mnuchin, Trump personally “asked multiple federal agencies to address . . . Erdogan’s ‘concerns’ that Turkey’s state-owned bank would be under threat of U.S. sanctions.”53 According to The Hill, the revelation “is the first public U.S. admission of Trump directing Cabinet officials, in this case in Treasury and the Department of Justice, to involve themselves with Erdogan’s concerns around Halkbank. . . . It also raises questions about how Trump’s personal relationships and business dealings influence his foreign policy decisions, at a time when his dealings with Ukraine are under scrutiny as part of a formal impeachment inquiry led by House Democrats.”54

Trump’s behind-the-scenes efforts on Erdogan’s behalf also raise questions about why, in late June 2019, Attorney General Barr offers Erdogan a fine over Halkbank’s illicit activities instead of an indictment.55 Erdogan refuses Barr’s lenient offer, after which the DOJ indicts Halkbank—even as Mnuchin’s Treasury Department, per the New York Times, continues to “not impose penalties” on the bank.56 That the actions of both Barr and Mnuchin have come at Trump’s direction now seems clear; Bloomberg News reports in late 2019 that Trump “ordered” Barr and Mnuchin to review their approach to Halkbank.57 Bloomberg calls Trump’s actions an “unusual intervention” in an “active federal investigation,” noting in particular, regarding Barr’s involvement in the Manhattan-based prosecution of Halkbank, that the attorney general had represented to Turkish officials that he would try to “reach a deal” with prosecutors in Manhattan to help Halkbank avoid a trial.58 Bloomberg will later observe that Trump’s and Barr’s actions, as well as a lack of clarity on the timeline for Halkbank’s indictment, “rais[e] questions about whether [the Halkbank indictment] was set aside until it became politically expedient for the Trump administration to unseal it”—an observation that implies the original sealing of the indictment, too, was politically motivated.59 Bloomberg’s recitation of its attempts to get a comment from the Trump administration on the Halkbank case underscores how politically sensitive Trump’s team considers it: “Justice Department officials declined to comment when asked about Barr’s efforts, and the Treasury Department declined to comment on Mnuchin’s role. The White House declined to comment, and the State Department declined to discuss the part Pompeo played. Bolton declined to comment.”60

Giuliani had been lobbying Trump on Zarrab and Halkbank as far back as 2017. At the time, Giuliani was also following in the by then fired Flynn’s footsteps in lobbying Trump to extradite Gulen to Turkey. According to former White House officials who speak to the Washington Post, “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.’ 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.”61

That Giuliani’s interest in Gulen was linked to his representation of Zarrab is clear, for, as the Post reports, “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” along with Zarrab.62 CNN reports that during one political rally, Erdogan both called Gulen a “terrorist” and announced his support for a “reintroduction of the death penalty” in Turkey.63

For President Trump and his allies, then, the clear choice in dealing with Erdogan has been between rewarding his corrupt efforts to circumvent U.S. and international sanctions on Tehran and acknowledging Gulen’s valiant anti-corruption efforts by safeguarding him; Trump, Giuliani, and Flynn have all chosen the former option, as has the father of Trump personal attorney Marc Mukasey—former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey—who in June 2017 takes on Zarrab’s case as co-counsel alongside Giuliani, despite a court seeing “potential conflicts of interest” in the representation.64

U.S. officials are so concerned that Giuliani is, alongside Erdogan, lobbying Trump directly for Zarrab’s release that “at one point in 2017, they confront[ ] [Giuliani] and ask him not to bring up Turkish issues when he [meets] with the president.”65 As for Flynn, in addition to writing a pro-Erdogan op-ed in late 2016, he also lobbies Trump on the Gulen issue from late 2016 through early 2017.66 In February 2017, following Flynn’s firing by Trump, Giuliani flies to Turkey to speak directly with Erdogan about Gulen and Zarrab.67 Lobbying experts will tell the Washington Post that even if Giuliani is not lobbying on behalf of Ankara in 2017, he is nevertheless lobbying on behalf of a foreign principal whose release from U.S. custody the Turkish government also desires—a circumstance that may trigger his requirement to register as a foreign agent or else face federal criminal charges.68 That Trump works to extradite Gulen throughout 2017, at a time when Flynn, who had long worked for the same purpose, is cooperating with federal law enforcement in an investigation involving the 2016 Trump campaign, underscores the ambiguity surrounding Trump’s motives with respect to Turkey in the first year of his presidency.

As for how Trump responds to Giuliani’s, Flynn’s, and Mukasey’s pro-Erdogan entreaties, the Washington Post reports that at one point in 2017, “with Giuliani and [Michael] Mukasey in the room, Trump reportedly asked secretary of state Rex Tillerson to try to get the Justice Department to drop the case against Zarrab. The president also suggested [Tillerson] speak to Giuliani about the case. Tillerson refused.”69 MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes has argued that Trump’s attempt to use the State Department to interfere with a DOJ investigation to benefit his personal attorney is, “if true . . . also a high crime” under the U.S. Constitution—as well as yet another echo of the 2019 Ukraine scandal.70

 

According to the Washington Post, in Turkey, as in Ukraine, Trump appears for all purposes to be “following Giuliani’s lead.” The newspaper reports that “Trump asked [his advisers] frequently about why Gulen couldn’t be turned over to Turkey, referring to Erdogan as ‘my friend.’ ”71 But more than just asking questions on the subject, Trump militates for Gulen’s rendition despite being told that the case against him in Turkey does not meet U.S. evidentiary standards for extradition. The Post reports that Trump “repeatedly wanted to [extradite Gulen], but . . . advisers were appalled [and] blocked [it]. Aides worried Giuliani was doing Turkey’s bidding.”72 One White House official tells the Post that it seemed that some in the White House simply wanted to “do a solid for Erdogan.”73 That the president himself is willing to appease corruption, and even punish anti-corruption efforts, for the sake of a “friend” is clear—even as “administration officials are overwhelmingly opposed to the idea and [telling] the president that the move could violate the legal process and damage him politically.”74 As for Giuliani, when the Washington Post asks whether he ever advocated for Gulen’s extradition—conduct confirmed by many former White House officials—he replies that the allegation “sounds wacky.”75

That Halkbank did what it is alleged to have done—helped undermine the very Iran sanctions that Trump has publicly not only supported but sought to augment—is clear. The Post notes that “a high-ranking official with the bank has already been convicted on related charges, after testimony from . . . gold trader [Zarrab], who was an apparent mastermind of the effort.”76 Even so, when top Trump Senate ally Lindsey Graham accidentally speaks to a Russian hoaxer pretending to be Turkey’s minister of defense in August 2019, he assures the “minister” that as to the case “involving the Turkish bank . . . [Trump] does not want that case to hurt our relationship. He mentioned that twice.”77 The Post calls Graham’s words “telling” because the comment comes “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.”78

In the event, there is indeed evidence that the Trump administration had originally stalled action against Halkbank to keep Erdogan appeased. Per the Washington Post, it is just six days after Trump warns Erdogan against invading Syria in early October 2019—and Erdogan ignores the president’s warning—that “the Justice Department announce[s] criminal charges against Halkbank.”79 Bloomberg News reports that, prior to the indictment, Trump had “told Erdogan that [Attorney General] Barr and [Treasury Secretary] Mnuchin would handle his pleas to avoid charges against Halkbank over sanctions evasion.”80

 

Even before Erdogan’s invasion of Syria in October 2019, there are other reasons to suspect that Trump’s foreign policy with respect to Turkey is compromised. In mid-April 2019, Trump allows Turkish officials to use Trump International Hotel in D.C. for their Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey Relations.81 The lucrative gathering at the Trump property—which, combined with Turkish officials’ 2017 gathering at the same site for the same purpose, generates “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for Trump’s hotel, according to the New York Times—is addressed by Jared Kushner, among others; attendees include “at least three ministers in Turkey’s government,” “a senior advisor to [Erdogan],” and Trump’s family friend and business associate, Mehmet Ali Yalcindag. On the second day of the conference, the featured speaker at the event, Turkey’s finance minister, Berat Albayrak—Erdogan’s son-in-law— is invited to meet with the president at the White House.82 Per U.S. media outlet Courthouse News, Albayrak was “implicated (but never charged) in the Reza Zarrab case.”83 The conference thereby acts as an opportunity for Trump to meet with an Erdogan agent and Zarrab associate just four and a half months before Turkey announces its intention of invading Syria. The meeting at the White House is not a low-key affair, either; present at the event, besides Erdogan’s son-in-law, Trump’s son-in-law, and Trump himself, is Treasury Secretary Mnuchin—“ whose agency,” Courthouse News notes, “had probed Zarrab and Halkbank.”84

 

According to the New York Times, Kushner, Albayrak, and Yalcindag are, taken together, a “back channel” between Trump and Erdogan comprising “a trio of sons-in-law.” 85 While it is unknown how frequently Trump uses this back channel, the Times notes that, Albayrak aside, Trump sees Yalcindag “socially” three to four times a year.86 Immediately after Trump’s election, Erdogan had ensured his own ongoing exploitation of the Trump-Yalcindag relationship by “nam[ing] Mr. Yalcindag to a new role as chairman of a state-run business group that lobbies Washington on behalf of Ankara.”87 The Times adds that the state-run business group’s “previous chairman, Ekim Alptekin, had run afoul of American prosecutors by paying more than $500,000 to the consulting firm of the retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who went on to become Mr. Trump’s first national security advisor.”88 Alptekin remains at large overseas, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. His association with Flynn will return to relevance with the April 2020 release of certain investigative documents in the Roger Stone case, which reveal a cryptic Turkish-Israeli plot to interfere in the 2016 presidential election on Trump’s behalf that involves Stone, Israeli officials, proposed covert meetings with Trump in New York City, Turkish intelligence, an unstated anti-Clinton “October surprise,” and an unnamed “Lieutenant General”—a strange confluence of data points that suggests the possible involvement of Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and intelligence expert whose dealings with Alptekin pre-election saw the two men working simultaneously for Turkish and Israeli interests and thereafter dissembling about their engagements.89

The New York Times calls Trump’s three-man back channel to Erdogan an “often-unseen connection” between the Turkish and American presidents that enables “private dialogue” and “backdoor diplomacy.”90 Per the Times, Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton will cite Trump’s relationship with Erdogan as an instance of him “confus[ing] personal relationships with national relationships,” noting in a November 2019 speech Trump’s “reluctance to confront Mr. Erdogan by imposing sanctions on Turkey.”91 According to NBC, Bolton suggests in the speech that Trump’s “approach to U.S. policy on Turkey is motivated by his personal or financial interests.”92

 

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