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This morning, the New York Times revealed that Trump and Attorney General William Barr worked together to try to stop a criminal investigation into a bank owned by the Turkish state. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, was preparing a case against Halkbank, which the government suspected was laundering money and sending billions of dollars to Iran, in violation of U.S. sanctions. Investigators believed Iran was using the money to pay for its nuclear weapons program. The case involved President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and members of his family and his political party. In June 2019, Berman was shocked when Barr asked him to end the investigations and let Halkbank get away with paying a fine and admitting some wrongdoing.
The story shows Trump undermining American policy to advance his own interests. From the beginning of Trump’s presidency, Turkey worked to gain influence with the new administration, hiring Trump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn, for example, as a lobbyist. Erdogan had personally lobbied Trump hard to get rid of the Halkbank investigation. Senior officials worried that the president was chatting with an authoritarian leader about a criminal case, in a country where Trump does business.
(Trump and his family have long had business ties in and with Turkey, the most visible example being the Trump Towers Istanbul, which licenses the Trump name. The Trump Organization describes the buildings on its website as “a landmark in the historic city of Istanbul” and it is the organization’s first and only office and residential tower in Europe, with offices, apartments and upscale shops. The Washington Post has reported that the organization was paid up to $10 million to put the Trump name on the two buildings.
Erdogan attended the opening ceremony of the office and residential towers in 2012 and Ivanka Trump tweeted a message thanking him for attending, although a photo of Erdogan at the ribbon cutting has been removed from his Facebook page.)
Erdogan had tried unsuccessfully to get the Obama administration to drop the case, but now appeared to be having better luck. Erdogan told reporters that Trump had assured him he would take care of the matter. It was not until Trump and Erdogan clashed over Syria last October that the U.S. charged the bank, but the charges did not include any individuals. Barr fired Berman this summer.