WASHINGTON (CN) – A month into Senator Ron Wyden’s investigation of Halkbank, the Turkish state-run bank accused of the biggest money-laundering scheme ever charged in U.S. history, U.S. Treasury officials informed lawmakers that Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently attended a White House lunch with Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Ignoring a direct question from Wyden about whether Trump instructed Mnuchin to interfere with the Halkbank case, the Treasury Department disclosed that the Erdogan huddle was one of seven meetings between Mnuchin and top Turkish officials.
For Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, the nonanswer speaks volumes. “The Treasury Department does not deny that President Trump tasked Secretary Mnuchin with intervening in the criminal investigation of Halkbank, and the department’s response to my letter raises more questions than it answers,” Wyden said in an email.
The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Mnuchin’s meetings with Turkish officials.
With all eyes in Capitol Hill focused on the impeachment inquiry, Senator Wyden has kept a sharp focus on a similar drama playing out in Turkey, where the Oregon Democrat sees what he calls the Ukraine playbook unfolding for years.
The Treasury Department replied to Wyden’s investigation on Nov. 20 with a 4-page letter from Deputy Assistant Secretary Frederick Vaughan. The letter largely does not respond to detailed questions about Mnuchin’s discussions with Turkish officials and whether Trump intervened in the case.
“At some of those meetings, Turkish government officials expressed concern about the impact on Halkbank of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran,” Vaughan wrote.
The final page of Vaughan’s letter offers some detail: an enclosure listing two of Mnuchin’s meetings with Erdoğan this year; three with Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak; and another two with Turkish Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek, a member of Erdoğan’s cabinet and ruling Justice and Development Party.
“These meetings took place while Treasury was supposed to be playing a key role in investigating Halkbank for massive Iranian sanctions violations,” Wyden emphasized.
Mnuchin’s White House lunch with Trump, Erdoğan, and more than a dozen other U.S. and Turkish officials received little attention during the Turkish president’s Nov. 13 visit to Washington, a day that also marked the first open hearings in the impeachment inquiry.
The only media outlet to flag Mnuchin’s attendance at the White House lunch was the Turkish state-run propaganda organ Anadolu Agency, which captured a photograph of him among more than a dozen other U.S. and Turkish officials. The Daily Mail, a London tabloid, reprinted the image.
Also dining with Trump and Erdoğan was Albayrak, widely described as “Turkey’s Jared Kushner” for parlaying his status as Erdoğan’s son-in-law to land top cabinet positions in the Turkish government. Before his current post as Turkey’s minister of finance, Albayrak headed the country’s energy ministry. Halkbank is accused helping to funnel billions of dollars in Iranian oil money in violation of U.S. sanctions.
“Albayrak in particular has close ties to Jared Kushner and a history of using shady dealings to advance Erdogan’s interests, including reportedly working with former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn in an effort to kidnap exiled Turkish dissident Fethullah Gülen from his home in Pennsylvania,” Wyden said.
Flynn’s failure to register as a Turkish agent prompted charges by former special counsel Robert Mueller. He pleaded guilty, admitting that his intelligence firm was paid $600,000 to spearhead a disinformation campaign against Gülen, a Turkish-born cleric and U.S. green card holder. Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Flynn met with Albayrak and others in September 2016, floating a plan to “whisk” Gülen in the dead of night from his Pennsylvania home. Flynn denied the kidnapping plot, but former CIA Director James Woolsey told reporters at the time that he witnessed the conversation.
In a phone interview with Courthouse News, Woolsey said his impression of the huddle in the hotel conference room was clear.
“Since any version of that sounded like it was almost certainly illegal, I said nothing in the meeting — nothing at all in the meeting and just listened, listened to their discussion,” the former ambassador recounted.
The Treasury Department reported three encounters between Albayrak and Mnuchin, starting with a bilateral meeting on July 21, 2018. That fell just days before Vice President Mike Pence threatened to impose sanctions if Erdoğan did not release Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor imprisoned at the time in Turkey. News reports at the time suggested that the Halkbank case had been a bargaining chip in what observers called Turkey’s “hostage diplomacy.”
This past April, Mnuchin met twice with Albayrak: once at the annual spring meeting at the World Bank and IMF, and then again days later at the White House. Both of the presidential sons-in-law, Kushner and Albayrak, attended the latter meeting, which fell toward the end of an annual U.S.-Turkey Business Conference held that year at Trump International in Washington.
The same month, Trump told Erdoğan during a phone call that Attorney General William Barr and Mnuchin would “handle” the Halkbank case, sources told Bloomberg last month.
Other Trump’s allies have shown a curious interest in the Halkbank case. In his capacity as a private attorney, Rudy Giuliani represented Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader at the center of the conspiracy who later implicated Erdoğan in ordering the sanctions-busting trades. Giuliani shuttled between Washington and Turkey’s capital of Ankara in a failed attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap that would have prevented Zarrab’s testimony.
Giuliani’s unsuccessful negotiations included a White House meeting reported to have occurred in the fall of 2017 with Trump, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Mnuchin met with Turkish Prime Minister Şimşek on Oct. 13, 2017, shortly before Zarrab pleaded guilty to executing the largest Iranian sanctions evasion scheme in U.S. history.
For Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury now serving as a senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Şimşek represented Turkey’s last attempt to resolve the Halkbank matter with an economic professional rather than personal business relationships.
“After that, you’re looking at people who were directly involved in the Halkbank problem negotiating or apparently negotiating its conclusion,” Schanzer said.
Şimşek, an economist, was replaced the year after his huddles with Mnuchin by Albayrak, whom federal prosecutors said in a recent indictment “instructed Halkbank to resume the scheme.”
Mirroring his actions in Ukraine, Giuliani’s role in the Halkbank scandal via Zarrab evoked parallels to the impeachment inquiry for Senator Wyden.
“Congress needs to know to what extent Donald Trump and his cronies were carrying water for a state-owned Turkish bank and whether they ran the same Ukraine playbook by roping U.S. government officials into their personal scheme,” Wyden said.
Both in Ukraine and in Turkey, House Democrats have alleged that Trump deputized quasi-governmental actors like Giuliani to turn U.S. foreign policy into an instrument for his personal gain. Democrats contend that in Ukraine this took the form of an abstract bribery scheme likened to “missiles for misinformation” – putting vital military assistance for Ukraine’s war against Russia in limbo unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky manufactured a counternarrative to the Mueller report and political investigations into Trump’s likely rival Joe Biden.
Wyden’s colleagues in the Senate characterize Trump’s play in Turkey as more classically self-interested.
“I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul, and it’s a tremendously successful job,” Trump commented in a December 2015 interview with Steve Bannon. “It’s called Trump Towers. Two towers, instead of one. Not the usual one. It’s two.”
Four of Wyden’s Democratic colleagues – Senators Tom Udall, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal – have taken Trump’s admission at his word. The quartet have been running a parallel investigation into how that admitted conflict has influenced the U.S.-Turkey relationship and the Syria withdrawal.
Before its indictment last month, Halkbank appeared to have delayed prosecution for years. Schanzer, the former Treasury official, noted that the bank’s indictment is undated, and two of Halkbank’s top managers were first charged in 2017.
“So, Turkey I think understood that it had a particular amount of leverage and successfully see it postponed for what appears to be two years or more,” he said.