WASHINGTON (CN) – Senator Ron Wyden asked Attorney General William Barr on Monday to recuse himself from the record-breaking money laundering prosecution of Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, amid reports that Ambassador John Bolton told Barr that President Donald Trump has a compromised relationship with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Recent reports indicate that you and former national security adviser John R. Bolton shared concerns that President Trump was granting personal favors to the autocratic leader of Turkey,” Wyden noted in a four-page letter.
Published before Senate Republicans voted to reject witness testimony at Trump’s impeachment trial, the New York Times reported that Bolton privately told Barr that that the president displayed a disturbing pattern of granting favors to autocratic leaders from Turkey and China.
Summarizing the report, Wyden’s letter stated: “In particular, reports indicate that President Trump promised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Trump would use his authority to halt any further enforcement actions against the bank, and that Trump consequently instructed you and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to interfere in the matter.”
Characterizing the report as a gross mischaracterization, a Justice Department spokeswoman claimed: “There was no discussion of ‘personal favors’ or ‘undue influence’ on the investigation, nor did Attorney General Barr state that the President’s conversations with foreign leaders was [sic] improper.”
But Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat, noted that his own investigation into the Halkbank case in October corroborated allegations that Trump interfered.
“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, including a high-priced lobbying effort by Ballard Partners,” the Oregon Democrat said, referring to a firm that has been called “The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”
Spearheaded by a gold trader named Reza Zarrab, the Halkbank conspiracy involved an effort to funnel billions of dollars in Iranian oil money into the global economy. Zarrab, who had a shell company in Trump Towers Istanbul, had been a close ally of Turkey’s Erdogan before he pleaded guilty to violating U.S. sanctions against Iran in late 2017.
A federal jury in New York convicted Halkbank’s former manager Hakan Atilla months later, but the case stagnated for two years as the Turkish government lobbied the Trump administration against further prosecution.
In a letter to Senator Wyden on Nov. 20, a deputy for Treasury Secretary Mnuchin conceded that Trump personally interceded in the case on Erdogan’s behalf last April.
“As was publicly reported, when Prime Minister Erdogan raised concerns directly with President Trump in April 2019, the president referred the issue to the Executive Branch departments responsible by law for the investigation and enforcement of economic sanctions—the Treasury and DOJ,” Deputy Assistant Secretary Frederick Vaughan wrote at the time.
That letter disclosed no fewer than seven meetings between Mnuchin and senior Turkish government officials, including Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
“Even more troubling, President Trump, Secretary Mnuchin, and Jared Kushner held this White House meeting despite the fact that Albayrak, along with President Erdogan, appear to be personally implicated in the Halkbank scheme,” Wyden wrote Monday.
Federal prosecutors in New York alluded to Albayrak, sometimes described as Turkey’s Jared Kushner, in Halkbank’s indictment as a relative of Erdogan who held multiple cabinet positions and personally instructed the bank to violate U.S. sanctions.
Wyden noted that Halkbank’s eventual indictment came at a politically expedient time for Trump.
“Although Halkbank was eventually charged in the Southern District of New York in a six-count indictment related to the bank’s participation in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanction on Iran on October 15, 2019, these charges came just days after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria and the resulting political backlash,” his letter states.
Trump had been under heavy pressure for his precipitous decision to withdraw from Syria after a phone call with Erdogan.
As Trump’s impeachment trial focused on Ukraine, Wyden never relented on his focus on Turkey, finding both controversies fell into a similar pattern.
“Has the president engaged in a pattern of conduct in which he places his personal and political interests above the national security interests of the United States?” Wyden asked in a question recited by Chief Justice Roberts on the floor of the Senate on Thursday.
After proceedings ended that day, Wyden explained why he asked that question in an interview in a car of the Senate subway.
“I’ve been especially interested in this pattern of autocratic, authoritarian leaders that Trump always seems predisposed to,” Wyden told Courthouse News last week. “He always seems to take great interest in things that help them, security wise and business-wise.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Asked to respond by Feb. 18, Barr must answer questions about his interactions with Trump, senior Turkish officials or lobbyists connected to the Halkbank case, in addition to whether or not he will recuse himself.