In letters copied to the U.S. president, a Turkish businessman who partnered on the Trump Towers Istanbul deal implored White House cabinet members to sizably boost trade with Turkey in response to the novel coronavirus.
(CN) — Three White House cabinet members received pitches last week to dramatically increase trade with Turkey. Capitalizing on the coronavirus pandemic, the letters came from Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, the chairman of Turkey’s oldest state-sponsored trade group who partnered with Ivanka Trump and the president on the Trump Towers Istanbul deal.
“Well before Covid-19 and the new set of economic and partnership needs created by this crisis, President Trump and President Erdoğan spoke in November 2019 of expanding annual trade between our countries to $100 billion dollars,” Yalçındağ wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on May 20. “Dramatically increased agriculture exports from the US to Turkey would be a major step to delivering this.
“I have copied this letter to President Trump,” Yalçındağ’s letter concludes.
Appointed by Erdoğan to lead the state-sponsored Turkey-U.S. Business Council, Yalçındağ sent two similar letters to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who were both “distinguished guests” at a lavish U.S.-Turkey Conference that the foreign business group hosted at Trump International Hotel in Washington last year.
For Yalçındağ, the pandemic provided an opportunity to pitch Ross on turning to Turkey for personal protective equipment, efforts he said were already underway.
“With export financing in place, Turkey would be in a position to increase its role in a diverse and reliable global supply chain,” Yalçındağ wrote. “During the current crisis, Turkish manufacturers demonstrated the nimbleness and skill needed to quickly adapt to market needs. Turkish companies have manufactured and exported Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to more than 80 countries — with a significant shipment donated and exported to the United States.”
The letter to Brouillette focused on the liquefied natural gas supply.
“Several long-term contracts for gas supply to Turkey are due to expire within the next two years,” that letter states. “This means there is a clear supply and demand match — if we can align partners on both sides.”
All three letters became public after the Turkish business group’s lobbyist, the White House-connected Mercury Public Relations, filed the documents with the Justice Department pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
One of Mercury’s lobbyists Bryan Lanza served as Trump’s communications director on the presidential transition team.
Asked whether the president performed favors for a business associate, a senior White House official emphasized the longstanding trade relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally.
“The president has been clear that the United States seeks to grow our bilateral trade relationship to $100 billion a year, and we continue to work toward that goal,” the official, who insisted upon anonymity, said in an email.
Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the anti-corruption watchdog Citizens for the Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a phone interview that the letters appear to show a pattern of foreign governments using business relationships to try to influence the Trump White House.
“It looks like they’re trying every trick they’ve got in the book to influence the U.S. government, and that includes their ties to the president,” Libowitz said.
Trump and his daughter Ivanka were private citizens when they posed with Yalçındağ at the ribbon cutting for Trump Towers Istanbul in 2012. The relationship proved so enduring that, after Trump’s election, the president-elect reportedly called the Turkish businessman a “close friend” in a phone call with Erdoğan.
Yalçındağ — whose father-in-law, Aydin Doğan, owns the Istanbul towers — later attended Trump’s inauguration and became part of a trio of U.S. and Turkish power brokers through marriage. The New York Times described Yalçındağ as a go-between for fellow sons-in-law: Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who married Erdoğan’s daughter, and Jared Kushner, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Turkish lobbying expenditures in the United States have ballooned during the Trump presidency.
Last year, a Courthouse News investigation studied the Justice Department’s foreign lobbying database to identify the five largest recipients of money linked to the Turkish government between 2014 and 2018: Amsterdam & Partners, Ballard Partners, Gephardt Group, Greenberg Traurig, and Mercury Public Affairs.
The budgets of those five, including their subcontractors, more than quadrupled collectively during this time frame, from more than $1.7 million in 2014 to more than $7.3 million in 2018.
Senate Democrats have opened multiple investigations into Trump’s ties to Turkey, including one probing the president’s financial relationship with Trump Towers Istanbul and another looking into his administration possible interference with Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, which was charged in a record-breaking money-laundering scheme to Iran.