In what may well have been the shortest duration of sanctions in modern history, President Trump on Oct. 23 lifted all of the sanctions he had imposed on Turkey just nine days earlier for “escalating violence, endangering innocent civilians, and destabilizing the region” with its military incursion into northeast Syria.
In his statement, Trump referred to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as “a man I’ve gotten to know very well, and a man who loves his country.” Trump then added, “In his mind, he’s doing the right thing for his country.” And now, Trump says, the two men “may be meeting in the very near future.”
The media have rightly been focused on Turkey’s incursion in northeast Syria, with reports of ISIS jailbreaks and war crimes committed by Ankara’s Islamist proxies. But for those watching, Erdoğan’s rogue behavior is not new. His government has facilitated Iran and Venezuela’s sanctions-evasion schemes while openly supporting terrorist groups such as Hamas and the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
Despite his tough talk about NATO allies that undermine American interests (yes, Turkey is a NATO ally), Trump is inexplicably inclined to give the Erdoğan government a free pass. At nearly every step along the way of his presidency, he has elected to appease the Turkish leader when he could have come down on him in ways Americans now expect from their tough-talking president. Baffled lawmakers want to know why.
During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico reminded his colleagues that “Erdoğan has threatened the president’s financial interests in Istanbul before” and asked U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement Jim Jeffrey, “Does it concern you that the president of the United States has an active business interest in Turkey at the same time that our nation, including you, are engaged in very high-stakes, tense diplomatic engagement, and the president of Turkey has already threatened that business interest at least once that we know of?”
Trump’s Turkey exposure was so conspicuous that even his ardent supporters raised the issue before the 2016 elections. In a radio interview in December 2015, Steve Bannon asked Trump how he would respond to his critics “when they say, ‘Hey, look, this guy’s got vested business ventures all over the world. How do I know he’s going to stand up to Turkey?’” Trump did not shy away from admitting his Turkey exposure: “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul, and it’s a tremendously successful job.”
Whether Trump’s investments are a factor in his crafting of Turkey policy is something we may never know. But what is clear is that in a number of unpleasant episodes, the Turks lurk.
Let’s start with Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Five months after Flynn joined the Trump campaign as an adviser on national security issues, a Dutch company with close ties to the Turkish government signed him to a contract worth $600,000. Flynn then met with two Turkish government officials in Manhattan to allegedly discuss the rendition of Fethullah Gulen, Erdoğan’s former-ally-turned-nemesis based in the U.S., in return for millions of dollars.
On Election Day, Flynn published a piece in the Hill calling upon Washington “to see the world from Turkey’s perspective.” The piece now has an editor’s note stating that Flynn neither disclosed his work for the Turkish government nor the fact that the Dutch company “reviewed the draft before it was submitted to The Hill.” Flynn has since admitted to violating foreign lobbying laws.
Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, one of Trump’s key Turkish interlocutors, attended the president-elect’s victory celebration in New York City. Yalcindag is the son-in-law of the developer behind the Trump Towers in Istanbul, which has been a valuable source of royalties. During a November 2016 call with Erdoğan, Trump referred to Yalcindag as a “close friend.” According to Turkish media, Yalcindag was elected as president of the quasi-state Turkish-American Business Council in January 2018 thanks to his “close ties” with Trump. Yalcindag’s predecessor as council president was the owner of the Dutch company that hired Flynn in 2016, who was no longer able to travel to the U.S. because of an indictment against him for operating as an illegal agent of the government of Turkey.
For the last three years, Turkey has also shown great interest in Trump’s U.S. hotels. So far, there have been four Turkish government-related events at the Trump Hotel. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, “Turkish officials have made 14 visits to Trump properties, more than any other country.”
Turkey has also gained clout with the Trump administration by contracting with Ballard Partners, a highly influential government relations firm run by Trump’s top Florida fundraiser Brian Ballard, whose bundled contributions to the Trump Victory PAC reached almost $300,000 last quarter. Ballard partners made roughly $2 million representing the Turkish government and second-largest public lender Halkbank.
Halkbank was indicted by the Department of Justice for a range of financial crimes on Oct. 15, the day after Trump imposed his short-lived sanctions on Turkey for invading Syria. The bank had been the key financial institution in the 2012-2015 “Gas-for-Gold” scheme. This was the largest sanctions evasion operation in modern history, whereby Turkey moved gold and cash to Iran at the height of U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with high-level figures in Turkey pocketing some of the proceeds along the way.
At the center of the scheme was an Iranian-Turkish businessman named Reza Zarrab. The FBI arrested him in 2016 when he inexplicably decided to take his family on a Disney World vacation. The Turkish government was outraged over his arrest and likely feared that its top money launderer might share what he knew with U.S. authorities. It was at this point that Rudy Giuliani, after meeting with Erdoğan, was reportedly retained by Zarrab. Giuliani’s firm, Greenberg Traurig LLP, served as a registered agent of the Turkish government.
Reports recently published in Bloomberg now allege that at Giuliani’s urging in the second half of 2017, Trump asked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to press the Justice Department to drop its case against Zarrab. Giuliani also reportedly also urged Trump to extradite Gulen — the same cleric that Flynn sought to extradite.
Zarrab eventually became a witness for the prosecution, and Giuliani no longer played a role in the Halkbank drama. But the Trump administration, for two years, failed to pursue the indictment against Halkbank, even as the Turkish government refused to negotiate its penalty with U.S. authorities — an unprecedented move by a foreign bank that has violated American sanctions laws. It was only after the Turkish invasion of Syria that the case proceeded.
In the meantime, Trump continued to give Erdoğan a free pass on a range of other malign activities, such as its crucial support for Hamas. Turkey has also purchased the Russian S400 air defense system. Turkey is a jurisdiction of illicit finance for groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. And the government continues to erode democratic institutions. The Trump administration has elected not to impose sanctions for any of this, let alone call out the Erdoğan government. Instead, Trump continues to publicly call Erdoğan a “friend.”
This leniency toward Turkey is highly inconsistent with Trump’s other foreign policies. This is a president who has prioritized sanctions on Iran but for two years refused to indict the most egregious Iran sanctions evaders in Turkey. Trump has hammered NATO allies that fail to pull their weight but continues to allow Turkey to challenge American policy on a wide range of key issues. It is fair to ask whether his business dealings play any role, not to mention his tendency to surround himself with associates who have their own business relationships with Ankara. But there are no clear answers.
The one thing we do know: Trump keeps giving this rogue NATO member a free pass.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker, is a senior fellow. Follow them on twitter @jschanzer and @aykan_erdemir.