When Ron Wyden Talks Turkey, the Senate Listens: Inside the Finance Committee’s Halkbank Probe

WASHINGTON (CN) — The day before President Donald Trump’s impeachment, Senator Ron Wyden had been nearly two months deep into his investigation of the next international scandal to stain the White House.

“I was struck by the parallels between Turkey and Ukraine, but Turkey wasn’t getting the attention it deserved,” Wyden said in a Dec. 17, 2019, interview.

Senator Ron Wyden grills Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at a Feb. 12 meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.

With Congress’ holiday recess in the air, Courthouse News sat down with the 6-foot-4 senator at his office for an extended chat on a broad range of topics during a pivotal time in Washington. Trump’s Eastern European intrigue had captured the headlines, but Wyden’s gaze sharpened where that continent crosses over into Asia.

From Trump’s impeachment the next day through the Senate trial, Wyden steadily plugged away at uncovering the Trump administration’s interference in a record-breaking money-laundering case involving Turkey’s state-run Halkbank. A look back on that discussion shows how his ongoing probe has borne fruit.

Since launching his Halkbank investigation in October, Wyden — the Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat — has seen more than a dozen of his peers join him in scrutinizing President Trump’s ties to Turkey.

“That’s kind of what this work is all about,” Wyden philosophized, before this critical mass swelled. “It’s keep banging on the rock pile.”

Long before Edward Snowden’s leaks laid bare mass surveillance, Wyden put the National Security Agency’s former director James Clapper on record denying that the agency swept up data on hundreds of millions of Americans.

“He looked at the committee, and he looked at me, and he lied to the American people,” Wyden said, referring to Clapper’s denial.

Wyden also launched an investigation of the National Rifle Association’s ties to the Kremlin in March 2018, months before Russian agent Maria Butina was arrested for infiltrating the gun-lobbying group.

Now, Wyden’s curiosity about Trump and Turkey has spread to other party leaders. Senators Robert Menendez and Sherrod Brown, the top Democrats on the Foreign Affairs and Banking Committees, respectively, joined Wyden in asking a question during the impeachment trial about Trump’s affinity for authoritarian leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who for years has been dogged by allegations that he ordered gold trades with Iran through Halkbank in violation of U.S. sanctions.

“Has the president engaged in a pattern of conduct in which he places his personal and political interests on top of the national security interests of the United States?” Wyden, Menendez and Brown jointly asked during the impeachment inquiry on Jan. 30, in a question read aloud in the Senate by Chief Justice John Roberts.

President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Trump’s Turkish interests also troubled Wyden during the sit-down interview.

“Donald Trump has significant financial interest in Turkey,” Wyden noted at the time, referring to Trump Towers Istanbul. “We read regularly that his family has forged personal relationships with important Turkish officials. And so, you have to ask — which is what is part of our inquiry — whether the Trump policy toward Turkey is in a significant way colored by his personal and political interests and not the national security of the country.”

The Halkbank case traces its origins to the prosecution of gold trader Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty to illegally funneling billions of dollars in Iranian oil money into the global market. Transporting tons of gold into Dubai via couriers, Zarrab admitted to busting U.S. sanctions against Iran and bribing powerful Turkish politicians to look the other way.

“I have long been troubled by anonymous shell companies, for example, and the inability to get what’s called beneficial ownership,” Wyden remarked, referring to the phenomenon of corporations identifying who profits from its operations.

“If you don’t have disclosure of beneficial ownership, you’re playing catchup ball when you’re trying to hold individuals and companies accountable because you’re trying to figure out who are the actual interests,” he continued.

One of Zarrab’s shell companies, Royal Holding A.S., listed its address as a 35th floor unit in Trump Towers Istanbul.

Before pleading guilty to money laundering, sanctions evasions and bribery, Zarrab retained Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to lead a campaign of shadow diplomacy that echoed the one in Ukraine.

Shuttling between Turkey’s capital of Ankara and the White House, Giuliani met with Erdogan, Trump, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and other senior U.S. and Turkish officials in an attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap. The New York Times reported that Tillerson resisted the White House pressure for a deal that would have effectively killed the Zarrab case.

“It sure looked like Donald Trump was doing the bidding of Erdogan and Giuliani, and there were real questions about whether this was about getting Halkbank off the hook, even though there were allegations that they were orchestrating the largest sanctions evasion scheme in history,” Wyden observed back in December.

In this courtroom sketch from Nov. 29, 2017, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab testifies in New York that he helped Iran evade U.S. economic sanctions with help from Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Zarrab became a cooperating witness after Giuliani’s effort failed, ultimately implicating Turkey’s Erdogan in the conspiracy. It would be years, however, before U.S. prosecutors would charge Halkbank for facilitating the illicit transactions. Halkbank’s indictment in October fell days after Trump controversially announced a Syria withdrawal, abandoning America’s traditional Kurdish allies following a phone call with Erdogan.

Pressing for answers about the delay in Halkbank’s prosecution, Wyden wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Attorney General Bill Barr, extracting major concessions from one of the men. Mnuchin disclosed seven meetings with top Turkish officials, including an Oval Office meeting last April between Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak. Federal prosecutors would later implicate Albayrak directly in the money laundering scheme.

“Those seven meetings with Secretary Mnuchin, those were not social calls,” Wyden noted. “That wasn’t about shooting the breeze.”

Wyden cornered Mnuchin about those meetings again earlier this month during blistering questioning before the Finance Committee.

“Doesn’t this send a horrible picture to pose in the Oval Office with sanctions violators?” Wyden asked the Trump cabinet member on Feb. 12. “I mean, is it just open season for sanctions violators in your Treasury Department?”

Later in the hearing, Mnuchin would try to play down those meetings — and in the process, hand the senator an important concession.

“Many of these discussions had nothing to do with sanctions issues or Halkbank issues whatsoever,” the Treasury secretary insisted, hedging an answer in a way that gave his questioner an opening.

“Some meetings were about Halkbank,” Wyden pounced. “Some meetings were about other matters, based on your last answer.”

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 12, 2020.

A week after that blistering exchange, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Diane Feinstein, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, led eight of their colleagues — Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons, Richard Blumenthal, Mazie Hirono, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — added their collective heft to the congressional scrutiny on Trump and Turkey. They launched an investigation on Feb. 19 into Giuliani’s contacts with the Justice Department, citing reports of interference in the Zarrab case as their first concern in the appendix of their letter to the agency’s inspector general Michael Horowitz.

“These reports suggest that Mr. Giuliani has used his relationship with the president, including his representation of the President as a private citizen, to gain improper access to attorneys and investigators in the agency, particularly political appointees who serve at the president’s pleasure,” they wrote in a letter to the inspector general.

Though Barr acknowledged receipt of Wyden’s letter, seeking the attorney general’s recusal from the Halkbank case, the Justice Department has not meaningfully replied to its questions. It did not respond to a request for comment.

For Wyden, chipping away at a question until the rest of the world takes notice is a family tradition hearkening back to his journalist father.

“There’s a picture of my dad and Fidel Castro on the back of my dad’s favorite book about the Bay of Pigs, and Castro says, ‘Peter Wyden knows more about it than me,’” he fondly recalled, referring his father’s 1980 tome featuring interviews with the late Cuban leader and the CIA official who masterminded the invasion. “It’s my job to ask the tough questions. That’s what my dad did and built a case. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”

Nearly four years after Zarrab’s arrest, all three branches of U.S. government have focused their attention on the sanctions-busting scheme. The case against Halkbank continues in the Southern District of New York, where the bank recently dropped its boycott of the criminal case under the threat of heavy contempt sanctions. Halkbank’s attorneys have indicated that the bank will plead not guilty in March.

In one respect, Wyden’s Halkbank inquiry differs from his typical investigations: The senator now finds himself in Trump’s Washington, where Republican senators have not embraced his spirit of bipartisanship that he calls “The Oregon Way.”

“Donald Trump won 28 out of 36 counties in Oregon, and I still am in every county, every year, a fair number of them — like the one on Saturday night, … a county Donald Trump won by 10 percentage points,” Wyden said, referring to his regular town hall meetings.

That ethos has become increasingly rare in the United States, where Utah Senator Mitt Romney was the only Republican to break ranks and convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, facing a smear campaign from the White House as a result.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at the Capitol in Washington in 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Senate Finance Committee is similarly fractured: Chairman Chuck Grassley has shown little interest in the Halkbank probe.

Despite breezily responding to various other inquiries from reporters about Finance Committee matters, Grassley balked when asked about Wyden’s probe.

“I can’t answer your question,” the Iowa Republican said on Dec. 18, instructing his staff to respond to Courthouse News’ inquiry.

Grassley’s spokesman did not respond to an email requesting comment months later.

Like many Senate Republicans, Grassley waxed indignant about the surveillance of former Trump campaign associate Carter Page, but Wyden remained doubtful that they would join his call to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens.

“Hope springs eternal, and I hope that they will want to be on the phone and want to work in a bipartisan way for these FISA reforms,” Wyden quipped, before offering a tip on a follow-up investigation.

“You really ought to be looking at things like geolocation,” the senator suggested. “You know, tracking and things like that, under these intelligence laws. That’d be an ideal area for bipartisan work.”

Four days later, The New York Times published an exposé titled “How to Track Trump.”

“No one is beyond the reach of this constant digital surveillance,” the article proclaimed, presenting a case study on how to deanonymize location data from a random sample of more than 50 billion location pings the paper obtained from between 2016 and 2017.

Once again, Wyden proved prescient: The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the Federal Communications Commission would fine wireless companies like AT&T and T-Mobile hundreds of millions of dollars for privacy violations, a penalty the Oregon senator derided as “comically inadequate” for a multibillion dollar data industry.

Wyden’s ongoing commitment to online privacy led him to be dubbed “the internet’s senator” in 2015.

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