Amid Ukraine Inquiry, Congress Puts Pressure on Trump and Turkey

Senator Tammy Duckworth’s press conference on June 20, 2017, where she raised concerns about Trump’s conflicts of interests. (Photo courtesy of Senator Duckworth’s office)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A former U.S. Army colonel and veteran of the Iraq War, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth reacted with disgust at President Donald Trump’s sudden withdrawal last month of U.S. troops from Syria.

“I of course was appalled that he would make such a snap decision and that he would abandon our Kurdish allies, and I have real deep concerns for our national security, not just in terms of what’s happening on the ground in northern Syria, but also for our long term alliance with anybody that would work with us,” Duckworth told Courthouse News in a phone interview.

“I think if the Kurds, who fought alongside American troops and bled alongside American troops and died protecting American troops — and now, we’ve abandoned them,” the Illinois Democrat continued. “As a soldier, that’s just not something that you do.”

More than two decades in the U.S. military brought Duckworth to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The Purple Heart recipient lost both her legs in combat, before becoming a path-breaking lawmaker in more ways than one: the first Thai-American woman elected to Congress, the first to give birth in office, and the first female double amputee from the Iraq War.

“I need to make sure that decisions that our military commanders and ultimately, the commander-in-chief makes are ones that ultimately put the security of our nation first and the well-being of our troops second,” Duckworth emphasized. “And I wonder if that’s what’s happening here.”

Three of the soldier-lawmaker’s latest missions target U.S.-Turkish relations in the Trump era. She is one of four senators to sign a letter demanding that the Trump Organization’s chief compliance officer turn over licensing information to Trump Towers Istanbul, quoting the president as having called that building a “little conflict of interest.”

“We agree with the president in his assertion that the Trump Organization’s dealings in Turkey present a financial conflict of interest for him and are greatly concerned this conflict may be influencing U.S. foreign policy with the Erdoğan government,” says the three-page letter, which was also signed by fellow Democratic Senators Tom Udall, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal.

Duckworth also attached her name to an inquiry that asks whether the Justice Department can review Rudy Giuliani’s compliance with foreign lobbying requirements, as the former New York City mayor’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comes under scrutiny.

“I’m very concerned whether or not he has complied with any of the laws of this nation,” she said.

In addition to meeting with Erdoğan in 2017, Giuliani engaged in a reported Oval Office meeting with Trump and others seeking to pressure ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for a prisoner swap that would free Reza Zarrab, a gold trader who later implicated Turkey’s president in a scheme to funnel billions through Turkey’s state-run Halkbank. Giuliani insists his legal advocacy for Zarrab was appropriate, but Congress wants to learn more.

“These reports are part of a larger story highlighting President Trump’s efforts to accommodate the intense pressure campaign by the Turkish government to get investigations into Halkbank dropped,” Wyden told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in an Oct. 24 letter.

Federal prosecutors recently pronounced Halkbank a “fugitive” from criminal charges, accusing bank of illicitly funneling billions of dollars in Iranian oil money into the global market in a byzantine “gas-for-gold” scheme. U.S. District Judge Richard Berman is giving Halkbank another chance to appear for arraignment Tuesday, before holding it in contempt.

Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, sent Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin a letter last month probing his agency’s handling of the Halkbank case. (Photo courtesy of Senator Ron Wyden’s office)

On the eve of those proceedings, Halkbank’s attorneys at the firm King & Spalding reported that the bank “refused to accept service” of the indictment but asked permission to seek the case’s dismissal and the judge’s recusal without acknowledging the legal action.

Senator Wyden, a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee probing the matter, denounced the bank’s defiance.

“Halkbank has been indicted by a grand jury in the largest sanctions evasion scheme in history, and it’s completely unacceptable that the bank is refusing to appear in court,” Wyden told Courthouse News.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed sanctions against Turkey last week, and the bipartisan bill coming to the Senate contains a section on punishing Halkbank. The law also requires a report on the net worth of Erdoğan and his family.

“While holding Halkbank accountable in a court of law is critical, Congress also has a role to play in strengthening our sanctions regime,” Wyden said. “We have to understand how the alleged transactions were allowed to happen and how they can be prevented in the future.”

Earlier this year, one of Erdoğan’s most visible U.S. critics — NBA center Enes Kanter — briefly became one of Senator Wyden’s constituents as a Portland Trail Blazer, before being traded to the Boston Celtics.

After the Turkish government issued an Interpol red notice against the 6-foot-11 player, Wyden urged Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to condemn the “blatant assault on free thought and expression.” Turkey’s global purge of perceived enemies detained 160,000 last year and arrested 77,000 on alleged terrorism links, according to an Associated Press estimate.

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