A new report from The New York Times spotlights yet another troubling example of President Donald Trump attempting to meddle in the orderly operations of the Justice Department. According to the report, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly personally lobbied Trump to get a U.S. investigation into the Turkish government-owned bank Halkbank dropped — and Trump repeatedly proved to be quite receptive to the dictatorial Turkish leader’s requests.
The Halkbank investigation hinges on a scheme that the bank undertook to continue doing business with Iran even after tough U.S. sanctions were imposed against the country. At this point, nine individuals and the bank itself have been hit with federal criminal charges including bank fraud and money laundering.
During a late 2018 meeting of the so-called G20 group of world leaders — before Halkbank itself had been hit with charges — Erdogan personally gave Trump a memo outlining the Turkish government’s points of contention with the Halkbank investigation, and Trump replied at the time that the memo “looks convincing to me,” according to the president’s former national security adviser, John Bolton. At the time, Bolton says that Trump also told Erdogan that he was hoping to replace top prosecutors in the New York U.S. Attorney’s office handling the Halkbank case. At the time, that office was led by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman — who has since been unceremoniously and abruptly fired from the position, although that firing did come after Halkbank itself had been criminally charged.
John Bolton says that Trump asked him to speak with then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker about the Halkbank case, but Bolton says that he refused, although he acknowledges the possibility that someone else in the president’s inner circle may have carried out the request. Either way, Whitaker seems to have been eager to put Erdogan’s hope for a speedy end to the Halkbank investigation into practice. According to anonymous lawyers who were involved in the case and spoke to the Times, Whitaker told then-deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “that he did not want the case to move forward, and that he wanted the matter shut down.” Did Whitaker confer with the president about this matter — even if through an intermediary — before this pressure?
The Times reports that, during negotiations between Justice Department lawyers and Halkbank representatives, Justice Department officials were sometimes left with “the impression that bank officials felt they had all the leverage because of the relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan.” It’s another example of the president’s personal relationships and whims overshadowing basic sound government policy. Trump does business in Turkey — Erdogan himself attended the ribbon-cutting for Trump Towers Istanbul in 2012, and from 2015 through 2018, Trump garnered at least $2.6 million in net income from Turkey.
In June 2019, after Bill Barr got confirmed as Attorney General, Barr promptly kept up the pressure to draw the Halkbank investigation to a close. According to an anonymous former Justice Department lawyer speaking to the Times, Barr “pushed” then-U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman “to agree to allow the Justice Department to drop charges against the defendants and terminate investigations of other suspected conspirators” as part of a deal to end the investigation. Berman refused to comply — but only in October of last year did the Justice Department finally give prosecutors approval to criminally charge Halkbank as an institution. The approval and subsequent charges came shortly after Erdogan’s government sent troops into Syria.