President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeatedly brought up the case into Turkey's state-owned Halkbank, which has been accused of funneling billions of dollars to Iran, in his conversations with former U.S. President Donald Trump, John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, has said.
According to Bolton, Erdoğan's efforts to ensure the dismissal of the case continued for months after Trump fired Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who had been leading the proceedings.
In the months that followed, "it would be a rare conversation in person or on the phone where it (Halkbank) didn't come up" in discussions with the U.S. president, Bolton told DER SPIEGEL.
Bolton also said that Erdoğan presented Trump with a memo from the law firm King & Spalding, which worked for Halkbank, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires in December 2018. Trump leafed through the memo without really reading it, Bolton said, adding that Trump nevertheless ensured Erdoğan that he believed in Halkbank's innocence. According to Bolton, Trump told Erdoğan he would "take care of it."
In April 2019, the U.S. president allegedly told Erdoğan that he had personally entrusted Attorney General William Barr and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with the matter. "We were getting very close to a resolution on Halkbank," he allegedly told Erdoğan on the phone.
According to people familiar with the issue, Attorney General Barr allegedly pressured Geoffrey Berman, Bharara's successor in the Southern District of New York, telling him to refrain from charging the bank. Berman apparently declined to comply.
While many in Trump's orbit are still unsure why the president sought to help Erdoğan, Bolton thinks that Trump was fascinated by authoritarian leaders like Erdoğan and Putin.
"He was trying to show Erdoğan he was gonna do him a favor," says Bolton.
According to Bolton, the ongoing exchange between the two presidents was ultimately quite damaging to Halkbank. The financial institution, he says, was so certain that Trump would put an end to the legal proceedings that it refused to engage in any sort of compromise with U.S. officials.
"We've heard a lot about potential corruption involving Halkbank," says Bolton. "If Halkbank treats the laws of other countries as it was with our Iran sanctions, it's possible others could get involved in looking into its conduct as well."