MANHATTAN (CN) – A 2015 radio interview from the Donald Trump campaign trail has been political dynamite for those who believe the president has ulterior motives when it comes to his policy on Turkey.
“I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul, and it’s a tremendously successful job,” Trump disclosed in a Dec. 1, 2015, interview alongside his future campaign chief, Steve Bannon. “It’s called Trump Towers. Two towers, instead of one. Not the usual one. It’s two.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been prime minister at the property’s ribbon-cutting in 2012, receiving a thank-you for his attendance from Ivanka Trump on Twitter. Audio from the interview has been replayed on U.S. major networks whenever Trump steers U.S. foreign policy in an Erdogan-friendly direction.
What Trump declared after that comment, however, has been largely forgotten and was equally ominous.
“Turkey looks like they’re on the side of ISIS, more or less, based on the oil,” Trump told Bannon, who would briefly became Trump’s chief White House strategist.
That allegation did not stop Trump from praising Erdogan as a “strong leader.”
Last week, some four years after that interview, President Trump spoke to Erdogan on the phone and then gave his blessing for Turkey to invade territory in northern Syria held by the Kurds, a people historically considered U.S. allies.
Trump has been trying to mitigate the explosive political fallout of that decision ever since. His Republican allies and Democratic foes alike have warned that the Turkish operation gives ISIS, otherwise known as the Islamic State group, a chance to regroup.
“This president is caging kids at the border and letting ISIS run free,” Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro declared in one of the most scathing and quotable lines of a debate with a dozen fellow candidates Tuesday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S. ally that Turkey considers to be an offshoot of a terrorist group, had been guarding ISIS fighters, before being forced into a clash with Turkish Armed Forces. A video released by SDF showed those ISIS fighters escaping an overcrowded prison in northern Syria after bombing by Turkey.
Even Trump’s friends, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, raised the specter of a “strategic calamity” in the making.
“For years, the United States and our Syrian Kurdish partners have fought heroically to corner ISIS and destroy its physical caliphate,” McConnell said Monday. “Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria would re-create the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of ISIS.”
Though McConnell refrained from attacking Trump directly, the Kentucky Republican made a point to note that a “bipartisan supermajority” backed his prior legislation opposing the president’s planned withdrawal earlier this year. McConnell wields tremendous power as a vital Trump ally, acting as a bulwark to the president’s potential removal from office amid an impeachment inquiry.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did not hold back about the “chaos and havoc” in Syria that he laid at Trump’s feet.
“Our Kurdish partners already paying the ultimate cost of this betrayal and tens of thousands of civilians have already been displaced,” Schumer said in a statement, giving what is believed to be a conservative estimate.
The United Nations has placed the figure of uprooted civilians at more than 100,000.
“Strong sanctions, while good and justified, will not be sufficient in undoing that damage nor will it stop the consequences stemming from the ISIS jailbreak,” Schumer added, in a swipe toward Trump and his Republican colleagues.
Facing bipartisan backlash, Trump attempted to walk back his actions on Monday, leveling sanctions that would hike tariffs on Turkish steel. The president threatened, for a second time, to “destroy Turkey’s economy” for pursuing the same military operation that he approved the previous week.
Turkey experts interpreted Trump’s bluster as an effort to mitigate the political fallout and pre-empt more draconian sanctions from his congressional allies.
“To me, it just seems clear that this has stopped being about Turkey and Syria policy,” Freedom House’s research director Nate Schenkkan told Courthouse News in a phone interview, reading Trump’s backflip as a response to pressure from his allies.
“This is a big political vulnerability with the president, especially with Republicans,” Schenkkan added.
If true, the gambit appears to have failed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Lindsey Graham reportedly plan to advance their own, tougher sanctions regime on Wednesday.
Pictured smiling next to Erdogan at a classical music concert in Ankara earlier this year, Graham has been struggling to repair his credibility on Turkey.
After Graham’s public rebuke of Trump’s Syria withdrawal, pranksters with suspected links to Russian intelligence released a phone call showing the South Carolina senator taking a much softer line on Ankara in private than he had in public.
Speaking to a man he believed to be Turkey’s defense minister in that August phone call, published by Politico, Graham slammed U.S. Kurdish allies as a “threat” and offered assurances that he would urge Senate Republicans to “stand down” on sanctions. Graham also alluded to Trump’s connection to the case of Reza Zarrab, who executed the biggest money laundering conspiracy to Iran in U.S. history.
“This case involving the Turkish bank: He’s very sensitive to that,” Graham said in the August call. “The president wants to be helpful within the limits of his power.”
Details of how Trump reportedly helped Erdogan in that case exploded recently into national debate. Two years have passed since revelations that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to arrange a prisoner swap that would have freed Zarrab. Doing so would have been a tremendous favor to Erdogan, whom Zarrab implicated later that year in what U.S. prosecutors called a “fraud of global proportions.”
Recent reporting by Bloomberg, matched by The New York Times and The Washington Post, says Trump had a direct hand in efforts to terminate the case in an Oval Office meeting with Giuliani, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
A former CEO of Exxon, Tillerson was reportedly “unsettled” by the request to free Zarrab, who later pleaded guilty secretly funneled assets from the National Iranian Oil Company into the global economy.
Zarrab would eventually tell a New York jury that he laundered that money through Turkey’s state-run bank Halkbank, before converting those assets into tons of gold transported and sold in Dubai. His shell company Royal Holdings, which was involved in the scheme, had a unit in Trump Towers Istanbul.
The White House and Giuliani defended the attempted prisoner exchange as a bid to free Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor who spent years incarcerated in Turkey for espionage allegations that critics described as “hostage diplomacy.”
Critics of Giuliani, who is now under federal investigation, questioned whether the Trump ally’s murky dealings in Ukraine and Turkey amount to undisclosed foreign lobbying.
As Trump’s impeachment probe investigates Giuliani’s shadow diplomacy, the Zarrab docket has been stirred out of its years-long dormancy. The U.S. Department of Justice indicted Halkbank on Tuesday night, with prosecutors who pursued Zarrab assigned to the case. The development could spell a fine of billions for the Turkish government, at a politically combustible time. Prosecutors unsealed the indictment within 24 hours of Vice President Mike Pence leading a delegation to Turkey seeking a ceasefire in Syria. A defiant Erdogan said that he will not be in attendance.
Trump is not the only member of his administration who accused Turkey of helping the Islamic State group before taking foreign policy actions criticized as pro-Erdogan.
In January 2016, his former national-security adviser Michael Flynn told investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that Turkey had not done enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border.
“If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,” Flynn told Hersh in the London Review of Books. “We understood ISIS’ long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.”
Six months after this interview, Flynn would cheer on an attempted coup d’etat in Turkey as “worth clapping for.” Days after that, Flynn secretly served the government he previously wanted to overthrow. The general has since admitted to misleading U.S. authorities about the Turkish government’s ties to his intelligence firm’s $600,000 contract to improve the country’s image abroad.
The Turkish government vehemently denies ties to ISIS oil smuggling, a theory fueled by various reports in BuzzFeed; Turkey’s oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet; and hacked emails released by WikiLeaks.
“There have been these persistent rumors that Turkey has been helping ISIS, either for ideological reasons or other reasons,” Steven Cook, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a phone interview.
Although there is evidence of “local actors” in the illicit trade, Cook added: “I’ve never seen anything convincing that Turkey’s in cahoots with ISIS.”
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury, said in an interview Turkey was “implicated” in smuggling ISIS oil.
Schanzer, who is vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, said the question is: “Did the Turkish government directly benefit, indirectly benefit, or just turn a blind eye?”
Four years ago, at least, Trump subscribed to the theory of an unholy alliance between state actors, banks and ISIS-looted oil. “We have to hit the banks because the banks are pouring cash into ISIS,” Trump told Bannon back then.
“Who knows more about banks than Trump?” he added later with a boast. “Nobody.”
After being fired as Trump’s top White House strategist, Bannon granted an explosive interview with author Michael Wolff for the book “Fire and Fury” where he claimed that money laundering would become the president’s ruin in the Russia investigation. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and longtime target of Trump’s scorn, has investigated that issue for months, and House Democrats have justified their investigation into Trump’s tax records in part to study the efficacy of anti-money laundering laws.