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Trump’s Turkey Corruption Is Way Worse Than You Realize

An idiot’s guide to the Trump Turkey scandal that no one is paying attention to.
November 26, 2019
Trump’s Turkey Corruption Is Way Worse Than You Realize

Earlier this month, Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton, the moustachioed one, the unlikeliest of potential #Resistance heroes, left another clue about his knowledge of President Donald Trump’s corrupt dealings during an investment event at Morgan Stanley.

According to a report by MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, Bolton said that he believes there is a “personal or business relationship dictating Trump’s position on Turkey.”

Wait what?

The president’s former national security advisor suggested that the commander-in-chief made life or death national security decisions because of an active conflict of interest related to his business?

Even by the standards of Trumpian corruption, this is holy-motherforking-shirtballs level stuff.

Bolton’s accusation, if accurate, would amount to the biggest scandal in the American presidency in half a century: The most senior security staffer, a man with unparalleled access to the president, believes that Trump acted in a way that is indistinguishable from double-dealing despots the world over.

How is everyone not focusing on this story?!?

I suspect the answer is because the media finds it hard to litigate more than one claim of presidential malfeasance at a time and the purposeful opacity of Trump’s business dealings.

So until we get the full work-up on the Bolton story, let’s take a look at what is already in the public domain.

How could the Trump administration have two cases of diplomacy being performed for personal corrupt ends? I mean, really: How does this sort of thing happen when there are so many checks in place?in a giant federal bureaucracy.

Well, the Ukraine “drug deal” was able to get as far as it did because the dealers—Mick, Rudy, Gordo, and Rick—acted in what Ambassador Bill Taylor described as an “irregular” diplomatic channel. Which is to say: outside of the regular structure that is guided by law and norms and all the other things the “rule of law” party used to care a lot about.

And it turns out that a similarly irregular diplomatic channel exists with Turkey. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Berat Albayrak—he’s Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan’s son-in-law—said that he’s been working on “backdoor diplomacy”—his words, not mine—with Jared Kushner and Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, son-in-law of Trump’s business partner Aydin Dogan.

Kushner, of course, is American strongman Donald Trump’s son-in-law.

That “backdoor”—son-in-law to son-in-law to son-in-law—goes around the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who is a career diplomat named David Satterfield.

Satterfield has been in the foreign service since 1980—literally before Kushner was born—and held high-level positions throughout the Middle East. Which makes you wonder why Trump needs his daughter’s 38-year-old husband to be back-dooring U.S. policy to America’s most important frenemy in the region.

And the answer is that while Trump directed Rudy to handle his political affairs vis-a-vis Ukraine, he needed to keep it in the family in Turkey because where Trump’s bread is buttered.  In 2015, Trump told Steve Bannon that he had a “little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.”

That major building initially brought in between $5 million and $10 million per year to the Trump Organization. More recently income has been closer to $1 million a year.

Couple this multi-million dollar conflict of interest with reports that Trump came to an agreement with Erdogan to abandon the Kurds in a phone call—completely outside the normal channels of the U.S. foreign policy and defense apparatus and against the recommendation of everyone in those channels—and the fact that the primary parties to communication between the two nations are a triopair of family hangers-on and it’s hard not to think that something is deeply rotten in Ankara.

Like so many Trump scandals, much of the evidence of corruption in regards to Turkey is sitting in plain sight. So I put my old oppo hat on and dug around to create a handy-guide to what we know about Trump’s conflicts of interest and a list of questions as to what Congress can find out.

For those who don’t want to wade into this particular Trumpian Black Sea, the tl;dr is:

Trump enabled a despot who has significant leverage over his business in a brutal ethnic cleansing of our ally, cutting an opaque sweetheart deal negotiated by the sons-in-law of Erdogan, Trump, and Trump’s business partner.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has empowered Trump’s business partner, making him Turkey’s key man in Washington, which gives him inordinate influence on the administration and ensures that the financial interests of all involved are maintained.

Here is a primer on the major players and events.

The Players 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan – President of Turkey

Berat Albayrak – Turkish Minister of Finance and Treasury; Erdogan son-in-law; friend of Jared Kushner

Aydin Dogan – Turkish tycoon and Trump business partner

Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ – Chairman of the Turkish government funded Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK), son-in-law to Dogan; friend of Kushner; and Trump business partner

Arzuhan Dogan Yalçındağ – Wife of Mehmet; on the board of Dogan Holdings and minority owner; currently in business with the Trump Organization

Reza Zarrab – Iranian/Turkish businessman; arrested in the U.S. for evading Iranian sanctions; former resident of Trump Towers Istanbul; represented by Rudy Giuliani

The Timeline: Trump Business 

2009 – Ivanka Trump begins making trips to Turkey to pursue a business relationship with Aydin Dogan (who ran, among other businesses, CNN Turk) and his son-in-law Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ.

April 2012 – Erdogan attends the opening of Trump Towers Istanbul, which is a licensing deal struck between Dogan and the Trump Organization. Trump says Turkey is an “investment priority.” Dogan puts $400 million into the deal.

June 2016 – Erdogan floats the possibility of having the Trump name removed from the towers because of Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, showing the potential power he would wield over Trump’s business.

November 2016 – Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ attends the Trump Tower victory party in New York City and immediately becomes the intermediary between Turkey and the new administration.

December 2016 – The Trump Organization signals its intention to move forward on a new hotel in Dallas, partnering with a Turkish businessman.

January 2017 –Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ becomes head of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK).

March 2017 – Erdogan threatens Dogan—who in addition to being Trump’s business partner also owns a number of Turkish media properties—over hostile stories appearing in newspapers Dogan owns. Erdogan warns: “Everyone should know their place. Whoever tries to play us against ourselves will pay a heavy price.”

May 2017 –Yalçındağ schedules the TAIK conference, which had in previous years been held at the Ritz Carlton, at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. He does the same the next two years.

March 2018 – Under heavy pressure from Erdogan, Dogan sells the media assets in his conglomerate to a pro-government group.

The Timeline: Trump Administration 

May 2017 –Erdogan’s security guards assault protesters on U.S. soil. President Trump does not condemn the attack.

February 2018 – Yalçındağ indicates that TAIK is lobbying Trump on foreign policy in addition to economic policy, stating that Trump has agreed with their posture that border disputes should be resolved within the region. (Translation: Turkey should be free to do whatever it wants with the Kurds on the Syrian border and America should stand aside.)

December 2018 – Trump agrees to remove troops protecting the Kurds in Syria at Erdogan’s request, in agreement with the suggestion of TAIK and against the advice of his full national security team. After being pressured by Congress, Trump backtracks and keeps a minor presence in the area.

February 2019 –Kushner and Albayrak meet to discuss economic relations between Turkey and the United States.

April 15 2019 – Yalcindag, Kushner, Albayrak, and Wilbur Ross meet at another TAIK conference, hosted at the Trump International Hotel.

April 16 2019 –Kushner, Albayrak, Mnuchin, and Trump hold an impromptu meeting in the White House. Albayrak describes the meeting as “a reflection of Mr. Trump’s fondness, love and real warm feelings both toward Turkey and our president.”

July 14 2019 –Pompeo says that the law requires Turkey be sanctioned for purchasing a Russian missile system.

July 24 2019 – Trump undercuts Pompeo, saying that he doesn’t want to put sanctions on Turkey. Trump asks for flexibility from Congress.

October 6 2019 – Erdogan wins Trump over in a phone call (again) and successfully persuades him to remove all troops, allowing the slaughter of the Kurds on the Syrian border—again, against the advice of his full national security team.

October 14 2019 – Under pressure from Congress, Trump authorizes sanctions against Turkey.

October 23 2019 – Trump lifts those sanctions in a deal brokered by . . . wait for it . . . Russia.

November 2019 – Trump makes Turkey a sweetheart offer that includes a new trade deal and a sanctions waiver regarding the purchase of the Russian missile system.

The Timeline: Michael Flynn

August 2016 – Turkey gives Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn a $600k lobbying contract from Ekip Alptekin—then the head of TAIK. Later, in January of 2017, Alptekin’s job is given to Trump’s business partner Yalçındağ.

November 2016 – Flynn, now working as a Turkish agent, writes a pro-Erdogan op-ed in The Hill(natch) and does not reveal his financial ties.

December 2016 – Flynn rejects the Obama administration’s plan to arm the Kurds at Turkey’s behest.

The Timeline: Giuliani / Halkbank 

2010 to 2014 – During this period, Reza Zarrab, who is the ringleader of a crime organization designed to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, runs his business from Trump Towers in Istanbul.

March 2016 – Zarrab is arrested in Florida for sanctions evasion.

February 2017 – Zarrab hires Rudy Giuliani to be part of his legal defense. Giuliani travels to Turkey to meet with Erdogan.

Early 2017 – In an Oval Office meeting, Giuliani pushes for a prisoner swap between the sanctions-evading Zarrab and Pastor Andrew Brunson—an American citizen who who was baselessly arrested in 2016 by Turkish authorities in order to be used as a bargaining chip against the United States. During the meeting, Trump asks Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to drop the case against Zarrab. Tillerson refuses. (Once again, this is a case of Trump being bailed out of his attempt to commit illicit acts by staffers refusing his requests.)

November 2017 – Zarrab cuts a deal with prosecutors and testifies that he worked with the Turkish state bank Halkbank in order to evade sanctions against Iran. Zarrab’s testimony implicates Erdogan as part of the sanctions-evasion scheme.

April 16, 2019 – Kushner, Albayrak, Mnuchin, and Trump hold their impromptu meeting in the White House—the one we mentioned earlier—despite the fact that Mnuchin is overseeing a Treasury Department investigation into Halkbank that implicates Albayrak.

October 2019 – During a prank call with a Russian radio host who Senator Lindsey Graham believed to be Turkey’s defense minister, Graham twice volunteers that Trump told him in private conversations that he is “very sensitive” to the Halkbank case and “keen” to do what he can to resolve it.

So let’s turn this into an executive summary:

  • President Trump has substantial, active business interests in Turkey that Erdogan has demonstrated he can damage.
  • The president has repeatedly sided with Turkey against the unanimous objections of his national security advisors.
  • The Turkish point person for this relationship Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, whose finances are deeply entangled with Trumps and who has repeatedly bragged about his ability to influence U.S. policy.
  • The main diplomatic channel between the United States and Turkey consists of three men who have intertwined financial interests—Trump, Kushner, Yalçındağ— and the Erdogan family.
  • A second irregular diplomatic channel is headed up by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who also has a financial interest in the country through his client Reza Zarrab. Remember: Giuliani is being paid to defend Turkish nationals who allegedly trespassed against U.S. law by evading sanctions imposed against Iran. Which is an enemy of America.
  • The initial irregular diplomatic channel—the one with Michael Flynn being paid by Turkey—resulted in the president’s first national security advisor going to jail for lying about having been a foreign agent in Turkey’s employ.
  • There seems to be such little oversight of the U.S.-Turkey relationship that there is no record of what was said in most of the Trump/Erdogan calls or the Kushner/Albayrak/Yalçındağ meetings. Even Trump’s own national security advisor believe there must be corrupt personal dealings at play.

This fact pattern, combined with the astonishing Ukraine testimony last week, demands that Congress investigate. The questions are abundant:

  • How has Turkey has so successfully evaded U.S. sanctions?
  • What happened that caused the president to unilaterally reverse course and allow the Turks to slaughter our Kurdish allies?
  • What is in the transcripts of the POTUS calls with Erdogan dealing with these matters?
  • How has Trump’s business relationship impacted other events in the region, such as the al-Baghdadi raid?
  • What were the 2019 financial ties between Trump and his diplomatic counterparty?
  • What, specifically, led the top national security aide to the president to believe he was financially compromised?

We know that a campaign orchestrated by Erdogan and Trump’s business partner has resulted in a Turkey First White House that has shown no regard for our national security, the sacrifice of our allies, or the rule of law. An investigation should determine the degree to which this betrayal of American interests is the result of more Trumpian corruption.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.