A month into Senator Ron Wyden’s investigation of Halkbank, the Turkish state-run bank accused of the biggest money-laundering scheme ever charged in U.S. history, U.S. Treasury officials informed lawmakers that Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently attended a White House lunch with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Ignoring a direct question from Wyden about whether Trump instructed Mnuchin to interfere with the Halkbank case, the Treasury Department disclosed that the Erdoğan huddle was one of seven meetings between Mnuchin and top Turkish officials, Courthouse News reported on Nov. 25.
For Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, the nonanswer speaks volumes.
“The Treasury Department does not deny that President [Donald] Trump tasked Secretary Mnuchin with intervening in the criminal investigation of Halkbank, and the department’s response to my letter raises more questions than it answers,” Wyden said in an email.
With all eyes in Capitol Hill focused on the impeachment inquiry, Senator Wyden has kept a sharp focus on a similar drama playing out in Turkey, where the Oregon Democrat sees what he calls the Ukraine playbook unfolding for years.
The Treasury Department replied to Wyden’s investigation on Nov. 20 with a 4-page letter from Deputy Assistant Secretary Frederick Vaughan. The letter largely does not respond to detailed questions about Mnuchin’s discussions with Turkish officials and whether Trump intervened in the case.
“At some of those meetings, Turkish government officials expressed concern about the impact on Halkbank of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran,” Vaughan wrote.
Halkbank is accused helping to funnel billions of dollars in Iranian oil money in violation of U.S. sanctions.
The final page of Vaughan’s letter offers some detail: An enclosure listing two of Mnuchin’s meetings Erdoğan this year; three with Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak; and another two with Mehmet Şimşek, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“These meetings took place while Treasury was supposed to be playing a key role in investigating Halkbank for massive Iranian sanctions violations,” Wyden emphasized.
Mnuchin’s White House lunch with Trump, Erdoğan, and more than a dozen other U.S. and Turkish officials received little attention during the Turkish president’s Nov. 13 visit to Washington, a day that also marked the first open hearings in the impeachment inquiry.
The only media outlet to flag Mnuchin’s attendance at the White House lunch was the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, which captured a photograph of him among more than a dozen other U.S. and Turkish officials. Also dining with Trump and Erdoğan was Albayrak.
The Treasury Department reported three encounters between Albayrak and Mnuchin, starting with a bilateral meeting on July 21, 2018. That fell just days before Vice President Mike Pence threatened to impose sanctions if Erdoğan did not release Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor imprisoned at the time in Turkey. News reports at the time suggested that the Halkbank case had been a bargaining chip in what observers called Turkey’s “hostage diplomacy.”
This past April, Mnuchin met twice with Albayrak: once at the annual spring meeting at the World Bank and IMF, and then again days later at the White House. Both of the presidential sons-in-law, Jared Kushner and Albayrak, attended the latter meeting, which fell toward the end of an annual U.S.-Turkey Business Conference held that year at Trump International in Washington.
The same month, Trump told Erdoğan during a phone call that Attorney General William Barr and Mnuchin would “handle” the Halkbank case, sources told Bloomberg last month.
Other Trump’s allies have shown a curious interest in the Halkbank case. In his capacity as a private attorney, Rudy Giuliani represented Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader at the center of the conspiracy. Giuliani shuttled between Washington and Turkey’s capital of Ankara in a failed attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap that would have prevented Zarrab’s testimony.
Giuliani’s unsuccessful negotiations included a White House meeting reported to have occurred in the fall of 2017 with Trump, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Mnuchin met with then-Turkish Prime Minister Şimşek on Oct. 13, 2017, shortly before Zarrab pleaded guilty to executing the largest Iranian sanctions evasion scheme in U.S. history.
Mirroring his actions in Ukraine, Giuliani’s role in the Halkbank scandal via Zarrab evoked parallels to the impeachment inquiry for Senator Wyden.
“Congress needs to know to what extent Donald Trump and his cronies were carrying water for a state-owned Turkish bank and whether they ran the same Ukraine playbook by roping U.S. government officials into their personal scheme,” Wyden said.