Turkey’s Lobbyists Had Deep Access to Trump White House

Vice President Mike Pence meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace for talks on the Kurds and Syria on Oct. 17, 2019, in Ankara, Turkey. (AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Ballard Partners, the firm dubbed “the Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington,” ended its years-long contract with Turkey’s state-run Halkbank last week, the day after that bank’s indictment in a record-breaking money-laundering scheme.

Halkbank’s prosecution comes amid the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria following a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kurdish forces had controlled a territory in Syria’s northeast until two weeks ago when an invasion by Turkish troops began pushing them south.

It was four years ago meanwhile that the U.S. president whose brand adorns Trump Towers Istanbul admitted to having something of a “conflict of interest” in Turkey. Public records show Turkish interests run deeper than his corporate empire.

Ballard Partners, run by Trump’s top Florida fundraiser Brian Ballard, spent more than two years and made roughly $2 million representing the Turkish government and Halkbank. Ballard bundled $295,000 this past quarter to Trump Victory, a political action committee, and has donated tens of thousands of dollars more to Trump’s campaign and associates.

Records disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that Turkey’s payments to Ballard came with high-ranking access to Trump’s State Department, Treasury Department and White House, at critical moments for the U.S.-Turkish relationship.

Ballard Partners landed its $125,000-per-month contract with the Turkish government on May 11, 2017, less than two months after Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla was charged with helping to funnel billions of dollars to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Halkbank signed a separate contract with Ballard for the same amount in August, a couple of months before trial in that case began, but Ballard Partners announced Wednesday it would no longer represent the state-run bank that had been indicted in New York a day earlier.

It is not the only Trump-tied firm to keep some distance. Last Friday, as U.S. prosecutors sought to serve Halkbank with its indictment, the law firm King & Spalding claimed to have no authorization to accept service for the bank it has represented for the past two years. King & Spalding is also an erstwhile employer of FBI Director Christopher Wray as well as a longtime adviser to President Donald Trump’s real estate empire. The firm did not return a request for comment after a hearing Tuesday where U.S. prosecutors declared the bank a “fugitive.”

Before Ballard severed ties, it had led the lobbying campaign that assigned three of the firm’s other top figures to work on Turkey’s behalf: former U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler, ex-Clinton State Department official Jamie Rubin and Syl Lukis, a managing partner at the firm.

The next year, an article boasting of the firm’s outsized influence in the Trump administration ran in Politico, where Rubin serves as a contributing editor.

Rubin told Courthouse News in a phone interview that the firm had tried to make sure U.S. agencies would be aware how charges against Halkbank could affect international relations with a NATO ally.

“Once the indictment was brought down, we had been reduced in our work for Halkbank as the matter was basically in judicial channels,” Rubin said, explaining why the firm ended its contract. “We concluded that there was little more that we could do.”

Public records indicate that Rubin himself had limited contacts related to the Turkey and Halkbank contracts, which show the diplomat-turned-lobbyist placed two phone calls with Matthew Palmer, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department.

On May 11, 2017, the day Ballard Partners signed Turkey as a client, Wexler spent more than $8,000 of the Turkish government’s money on travel expenses.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had his first Oval Office summit with Trump five days later, as Erdoğan’s bodyguards assaulted peaceful protesters on the streets of Washington. The White House remained silent about the incident  and, roughly two months later in July 2017, Ballard called Trump’s deputy Sean Cairncross for reasons undisclosed in public records.

Turkish Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak (second from the right) attends an April 15, 2019, meeting in Washington with U.S. President Donald Trump (left), U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (third from the right) and Jared Kushner (right), Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. (Photo via Consulate General of the Republic of Turkey in Chicago)

A little more than a year would pass before Ballard landed an in-person meeting with Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers on July 24, 2018.

Two days after that powwow, Pence threatened sanctions against Turkey if it did not release U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, whom the Turkish government jailed in what critics called “hostage diplomacy.”

Wexler billed Halkbank the very next day, July 27, 2018, more than $12,000 on travel, and Ballard and Ayers spoke over the phone. Ballard lobbyists regularly contacted major U.S. and Turkish officials over the ensuing months, including Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow, Pence’s chief of staff and Trump-appointed Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell.

On Oct. 12, 2018, Trump dropped his sanctions threat in return for Brunson’s release. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu meanwhile demanded around that same time period that the United States drop its investigation into Halkbank.

Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, had been jailed in Turkey for more than one and a half years on terror and espionage charges. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

“Pastor Andrew Brunson is coming home,” Pence tweeted in celebration, crediting Trump for the release of an “innocent man of faith.”

Though Trump, Pence and Sekulow touted their fortitude for the breakthrough, one of the president’s top Florida fundraisers aggressively lobbied Turkey’s position throughout this time frame. Turkey continued to hold three U.S. consulate workers in captivity with relative silence from the White House, and Halkbank kept an indictment at bay for more than two years, even after its ex-general manager Suleyman Aslan and executive Atilla had been charged with the multibillion-dollar conspiracy.

Via his organization the American Center for Law and Justice, Sekulow did not respond to a detailed inquiry asking about Trump, Pence’s and his communications with Ballard.

In addition to lobbying, Halkbank retained considerable firepower from Trump-connected Big Law.

Since 2014, Greenberg Traurig has registered as an agent of the Turkish government, and its former partner Rudy Giuliani represented gold trader Reza Zarrab, who spearheaded the Halkbank conspiracy. The firm insisted that it maintained an “ethical wall” between its legal representation and its lobbying, but critics found it difficult to discern a distinction between Giuliani’s representation of Zarrab and political advocacy.

Never appearing in court, Giuliani shuttled between Washington and Turkey’s capital of Ankara on Zarrab’s behalf. He disclosed his meetings with Erdoğan and top U.S. and Turkish diplomats in court filings. Giuliani’s Oval Office meeting with Trump to try to trade Zarrab for Brunson would come to light two years later, in news reports broken by Bloomberg and matched by The New York Times and Washington Post.

Public records corroborate those anonymously sourced accounts of White House involvement. The Post reported that the Oval Office meeting took place in the fall of 2017, around the time that records showed contacts between Ballard lobbyists and Trump’s then-deputy Sean Cairncross and assistant Reed Cordish. After meeting with Cairncross that August, Ballard emailed Cordish in October.

Reportedly a key participant in the Oval Office meeting, Giuliani would execute what critics called Trump’s “shadow diplomacy,” allegedly pushing the president’s personal interests in meetings with foreign heads of state. The former New York City mayor left Greenberg Traurig in May 2018 to work for Trump exclusively.

Other Trump-tied law firms appear in Halkbank’s orbit: Halkbank paid for McDermott Will and Emery to defend Atilla, before he was convicted. McDermott represented Trump’s ex-fixer Michael Cohen.

King & Spalding disclosed having represented Halkbank in connection with the Justice Department’s investigation in a filing revealed on Monday. The letter was signed by Andrew Hruska, a former federal prosecutor in New York who signed as an agent of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Nov. 21, 2017.

Reza Zarrab, a gold trader at the heart of the Halkbank conspiracy, is pictured in this Dec. 17, 2013, photo surrounded by the media at a courthouse in Istanbul. (Depo Photos via AP)

Within days of that contract, Zarrab delivered testimony implicating Turkey’s president in a vast financial crime, and the firm would soon register as a foreign agent. King & Spalding’s disclosure stated the firm had been “retained to prepare and present a proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice for cooperation between the governments of the United States and Turkey regarding the handling of a U.S. legal matter.”

According to FARA records obtained by the firm Caplin & Drysdale, that matter involved an attempt to stop the Atilla case from going to trial in exchange for Turkish law enforcement cooperation on anti-Iran sanctions.

Though it reported ending its relationship with the Turkish foreign ministry on Dec. 31, 2017, King & Spalding’s relationship with Halkbank extended years longer. Titans of Turkish industry also nurtured ties with the U.S. president, whose Trump-branded towers in Istanbul are owned by Turkish media mogul Aydin Doğan. Ivanka Trump worked with Doğan’s son-in-law, Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, who was a featured speaker this year at the 37th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey Relations held this past April inside Trump International Hotel.

Hosted by the non-profit American-Turkish Council — a business group described by Turkey’s state-aligned newspaper Daily Sabah as the “main Turkish lobby in the U.S.” — this year’s event took place for the second time at a Trump property and featured top United States and Turkish officials as “Distinguished Guests.” They included Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and U.S. deputy energy secretary Dan Brouillette. The council did not respond to an email requesting information about financial arrangements with the Trump hotel and asking whether speakers received compensation.

On April 16, the last day of the conference, Albayrak had a private White House meeting with Trump, Kushner and Steven Mnuchin, the U.S. treasury secretary. The meeting was remarkable considering that the Treasury Department had a longstanding investigation of Halkbank, whose indictment implicated Albayrak in the scheme.

Federal prosecutors alluded to Albayrak as a “relative of the then-Prime Minister who held multiple Turkish cabinet positions.” Erdoğan was prime minister during the Halkbank scheme, and Albayrak then had been the Turkish Minister of Energy.

Treasury Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. As for the State Department, a spokesman noted that the agency “routinely interacts with a wide range of political figures, business representatives, and members of civil society.”

“As a general practice, we do not read out regular internal or diplomatic discussions,” he added.

Now the finance minister, Albayrak gave Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla a hero’s welcome in Istanbul upon his release from a U.S. prison and appointed the convicted sanctions-buster the general manager of Turkey’s main stock exchange on Monday.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman commented wryly on Turkey’s rehabilitation of the white-collar convict.

“I suppose that’s one way of integrating back into society someone who has been convicted of financial wrongdoing,” the judge quipped in court on Tuesday.

Another Ballard partner, Pam Bondi, was not involved with Turkish lobbying but was involved in a 2016 Trump-world scandal. Trump Foundation had donated $25,000 to Bondi’s re-election as Florida attorney general at the same time other state prosecutors had scrutinized Trump University. Both denied wrongdoing.

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