The former US national security adviser John Bolton is facing calls to elaborate on a claim in his new book that Donald Trump agreed to help Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by intervening in a federal investigation into a Turkish state-owned bank.
In excerpts of the memoir seen by US media, Bolton said Trump appeared to “give personal favours to dictators he liked”, and claimed that during a 2018 phone call Erdoğan sent Trump a memo insisting that the scandal-hit Halkbank was innocent.
“Trump then told Erdoğan he would take care of things, explaining that the [New York] southern district prosecutors were not his people but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” Bolton wrote. Erdoğan continued to lobby on behalf of Halkbank during phone calls and in-person conversations throughout 2018 and 2019, he said.
Bloomberg has reported that in April 2019, Trump instructed Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr to address Erdoğan’s request that Halkbank avoid charges.
Halkbank, one of Turkey’s largest banks, has been under investigation by US prosecutors since a Turkish inquiry in 2013 found it was used to launder up to $20bn in a scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran. High-ranking Turkish officials allegedly exported gold to Tehran via the UAE in return for Iranian oil and gas.
The Democratic senator Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate finance committee, said on Wednesday night that Bolton’s book provided “damning evidence” corroborating his findings so far that “Donald Trump attempted to interfere in a criminal investigation into the largest sanctions violations scheme in US history as a favour” to the Turkish president.
“If John Bolton has an interest in serving his country as opposed to selling books, he will respond promptly to my forthcoming request for more information about Donald Trump’s relationship with Turkey,” Wyden said in a statement.
Erdoğan has long maintained that the case against Halkbank is a politically motivated conspiracy to weaken Turkey, and has pressed both Obama and Trump to dismiss it.
The Turkish leader and his son-in-law and finance minister, Berat Albayrak, have both been linked to the Halkbank scandal by Turkish investigators.
Two men with close ties to Erdoğan’s inner circle – Reza Zarrab, a flamboyant Turkish-Iranian businessman, and Mehmet Atilla, Halkbank’s deputy chief executive – have been sentenced to jail time in the US.
Federal investigators in the southern district of New York, known for its independent streak, brought charges against Halkbank itself just after Turkey launched a widely criticised attack on US-backed Kurdish militias in Syria in October last year.
The case has shed light on the strong ties between Turkey and the Trump administration: Zarrab, who led a tabloid lifestyle of pop stars, yachts and cars and worked out of Istanbul’s Trump Tower, asked the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to represent him in 2016, shortly before Giuliani became the president’s attorney.
In 2017, Guiliani visited Turkey in an attempt to broker a deal with Erdoğan in which Zarrab would be swapped for a US pastor, Andrew Brunson, who at the time was in Turkish custody. Later that year, Bloomberg reported that he directly asked Trump and Rex Tillerson, then the secretary of state, to help secure Zarrab’s release.
Separately, Guiliani is also reported to have lobbied Trump for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a cleric whom Erdoğan blames for a 2016 coup attempt.
According to the New York Times, Erdoğan’s son-in-law Albayrak took up the Halkbank case with Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, as did the former project manager of Trump Towers Istanbul.
Halkbank itself hired a lobbying firm run by Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for both Trump and the Republican National Committee.
US-Turkish relations have become severely frayed in the last few years over issues including sanctions, Russian missile systems, Syria policy and the crumbling rule of law in Turkey. The rapport between the Nato-allied countries’ two leaders, however, has endured.