"It’s hard to be a friend of the President of the US"
Turkish businessperson Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ played a considerable role in the establishment of a special channel between President Erdoğan and former U.S. President Trump in the last 4 years. Now that Trump is gone, Mr. Yalçındağ finally agreed to speak with me about his friendship with the 45th president of the United States.
The 45th president of the United States Donald J. Trump is now playing golf in Florida, yet we still continue to talk about the residue he left in world politics. It looks as though we will do so for a long time. Trump’s departure might have major consequences for Turkey. The most important one being that the personal relationship between Trump and President Erdoğan is now history. Turkish businessperson Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, who played a considerable role in the establishment of this channel between the two leaders, has been in world news quite a lot in recent years. Prominent U.S. media outlets, like the New York Times, have frequently questioned whether the glue that kept the Erdoğan-Yalçındağ-Trump bond together was commercial favoritism.
Yalçındağ was elected chairperson of the Turkish American Business Council (TAİK) in January 2018, a year after Trump took office. Rather than by this title, Yalçındağ is often referred to by another title in the media. Yalçındağ is the son-in-law of businessman Aydın Doğan and therefore, was dubbed “third son-in-law.” The first two during the Trump era being Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak and Jared Kushner, whose father needs no explanation. This “son-in-law diplomacy” has been a concept we often referred to during critical moments in Turkish-American relations during Trump's tenure.
I met Yalçındağ in 2018 in Washington (where I lived at the time) during his first visit to the United States after becoming the Chair of TAİK. Yalçındağ frequently made statements on the state of bilateral relations between the two countries, but he always refrained from elaborating on his relationship with Trump. Meanwhile I kept asking for an interview with him to discuss his personal relationship with Trump. Yalçındağ finally agreed to speak with me, only after Biden took office. I consider it a matter of journalistic integrity to deliver this interview exactly as it was conducted without comment.
Q: The 46th president of the United States Joe Biden was sworn in last week. In Turkish-American relations, however, “to open a blank page with the new administration” seems to be very difficult. This is because the Biden administration is now focusing on complex files that have become a structural problem in foreign relations. In your opinion, what kind of process awaits Turkey in its relationship with the United States?
A: As one can imagine, the atmosphere was a little tense in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. However, certain issues within Turkey-U.S. relations remain the same even when presidents change. The system continues. Even though the political parties in power change, certain government traditions remain. Actually, not much changed after the transition from Obama to Trump. So, I do not think much will change in the transition from Trump to Biden. There were U.S. troops in Syria. Although Trump said he was not in favor of keeping troops in that area; the Pentagon, the system – whatever you want to call it - ensured that U.S. troops remained there. We can assumed that certain things change from president to president, but actually there is a system in place and that system resists change.
Turkey’s advantage during the Trump administration was this: Instead of asking his advisors and cabinet members to explain, for example, “the F-35 issue,” Trump would ask Erdoğan directly, because of the relationship between them. This enabled him to do Turkey justice. For example, he was able to listen to first-hand information about why Turkey bought the S-400 system, especially when Turkey initially wanted to buy the Patriots. Instead of receiving reports from aides, Trump preferred to listen to Erdoğan. Perhaps because of this, he placed blame on the Obama administration in the process, and acknowledged Turkey’s stance; he said, “They did not give Turkey, our NATO ally, what it needed. We made a mistake.”
Q: What will Biden do?
Everyone is expecting relevant institutions to function more effectively during the Biden administration. I frankly don’t understand what that means. Just because institutions functioning properly does not mean that the president will not handle issues himself. If a president wants to improve relations with Turkey, institutions may function properly or the president may be interested personally; or again, both processes can work together. Regardless, the president’s political agenda will be decisive.
Q: Well....in fact, that means Trump has brushed aside suggestions from his team and from institutions regarding Turkey. He made promises entirely on his own. “Institutions will function” is a phrase used to emphasize that the president will act in unison with the institutions.
A: You're absolutely right. While each president certainly has a different style of politics, I think Trump came up with a style even more different than the others. For example, Trump said the U.S. was tampering with the settings of some countries, creating turmoil, changing governments and leaders. Those countries were left in chaos. He said, “It was done in Iraq, in Libya. I don’t understand why we’re doing this.” I know Trump has often questioned whether these issues can be resolved through dialogue. At that point, there was a difference between understanding the system and understanding him. I wonder if that was part of the reason why Trump did not cooperate with institutions.
Perhaps, the U.S. is also tired of this struggle. I wonder if they would prefer to withdraw or continue to try and control the world. I am exhausted just observing them. Their politics are involved in every matter.
Q: Turning back to Turkey, which one of the problematic files between Ankara and Washington would you prioritize?
A: I think we will deal with the same problems today which we dealt with during the Obama and Trump eras. Turkey had to work hard during the Trump era. Military issues are still a top priority. The U.S. is saying, “You are a NATO ally, but you bought a defense system from a country hostile to us.” What they say is true if you look at the outcomes, but the U.S. could have managed the crisis differently if it had tried. They could have supplied the systems Turkey needed. These were not secret deals. Turkey did not suddenly come up with a Russian deal. So, either the U.S. first tolerated it and said, “let them buy it,” or maybe they thought we would not be able to buy it.
The biggest problem today is that Turkey purchased the S-400s and thus has been removed from the F-35 program. The fact that several parts of the F-35 are manufactured in Turkey shows that we are an important partner.
Q: Meanwhile, the hearings at the Halkbank case will begin in a couple of months at SDNY. The U.S. is somewhat continues to cooperate with PKK's offshoot YPG in Syria and no serious steps have been taken to investigate Fetullah Gülen’s organization in the U.S., let alone his extradition.
A: I believe that if the S-400 and F-35 issues are solved, other issues can still be resolved at the table. For this, we have sent a letter to the new President Biden, which is a tradition of the Turkish-American Business Council. We congratulated him for his great victory as a community of Turkish businesses. We said that we are engaged in commercial diplomacy, and that we have generated projects to maximize trade between the two countries. We told him we were trying to increase trade volume from 25 to 100 billion dollars. We wrote a letter saying that we had met with decision makers. We told the new president that we have not given up hope and that we hope to increase trade even more. We suggested that a committee be formed to resolve the issues between our countries. When such a committee is formed, all of the relevant parties of the two countries will convene twice a year under the chairmanship of vice presidents. Problems are discussed within this mechanism. We have five or six major problems with the U.S. Instead of negotiating them one by one, I think they should all be put on the table and discussed.
We believe that trade will be as important as military and political issues during this period. Unless America finds a solution of its own, China will become first in the world economy within five years and become the world’s superpower. Under the Biden administration, the trade war between the United States and China will take on another dimension. The U.S. will play one game with India and another game with Turkey. We as businesspeople have even started thinking that the U.S. might develop another strategy with Russia.
Q: As of today, there is a huge gap between the positions of the two sides. The United States says new sanctions could be introduced unless Turkey backs down on its use of S-400s. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, on the other hand, is sending a message that Turkey wants to return to the F-35 program. How is that going to work?
A: What has been explained to the U.S. is very simple: We negotiated with you for many years, but you did not sell the Patriots to us even though we were NATO allies; thus, we had to look for another system. If America is sincere, then it has to answer for that first. This is what it should say: ‘We understand the importance of Turkey. We will give you the Patriots right away. If you locate four Patriot defense systems in these particular regions, then Turkey will be able to defend itself.” I believe the situation here would be different if they said that.
Q: Have you received a response to the letter you sent?
A: Not yet, but we know it reached Biden’s chief of staff. Biden was not fond of this kind of contact until he took office in the White House. I believe he was right. They have collected all the information; they continue to receive Turkey's messages.
Q: It was reported in the press that you had a comprehensive meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, David Satterfield two weeks ago with the TAİK delegation. Satterfield’s tough stance on sanctions came as a shock to your delegation, it was reported.
A: Yes, we had a meeting, but it was exaggerated by the press. We invited the Ambassador to a meeting, and he met with our board of directors. We normally hold a meeting at least once a year with the U.S. envoy to Turkey or Turkey's envoy to the United States. We listen to both of them and try to communicate our problems. At this most recent meeting, we asked the Ambassador various questions and he gave his assessments. Frankly, he did not say anything that we didn’t already know. He said that the issue of the S-400s was very important, that the United States was very determined at this point, that a message was given along with the sanctions, and that a relatively light sanctions package was chosen. That is what we know; it is not a secret. Ambassadors are people with diplomatic courtesy. We tried to explain our thoughts as business people. Maybe, his tone was too serious for some of our colleagues, but for others it might have been quite light.
As the business world, we care very much that the administrations of both countries do their best to solve these problems. Today, the United States has nearly 2,000 companies invested in Turkey. The executives of those companies would say the same thing. We think that there is great potential on the Turkey-U.S. axis. We believe Turkey will provide an alternative supply chain in the trade war with China. Similarly, we believe that we can do strategic work together with the United States on the African continent.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham knows about Turkey. Last March, he said in our one-on-one meeting that joint investments could be done in Africa. Since it will take longer for American companies to research and learn about those countries, we talked about building up the infrastructure of many countries together. We are always trying to show politicians this side of business.
‘I did not meet Trump during his presidency.’
Q: You said it was right for Biden to avoid foreign contacts before taking office. This is exactly the opposite of what Trump’ had done. Donald Trump is a person who calls you “my friend.” Because of your relationship with Trump, you made it into the news quite often. It has been reported that you are the one who set up the Berat Albayrak-Jared Kushner relationship, which was dubbed “son-in-law diplomacy.” In fact, the New York Times also identified you as the “third son-in-law,” based on the fact that you are Aydın Doğan’s son-in-law. You never spoke publicly about the way Trump did business while he was in office. Now that he is no longer president, are you sorry he did not win a second term?
A: First of all, let me say this: It is not a good thing to be a friend of the President of the United States and that this is a fact known to many. It was hard! The American media was very interested in our relationship. The media, which certainly had a negative stance toward Trump, tried very hard to find something. I met with those journalists and gave interviews and because we are from the same world, I understand them. They were very curious about whether there was something more behind this friendship. Then they found out there was nothing more. Anyway, it could have been only after he stepped down from the presidency that we could meet again. That’s how it should be.
Q: Why is that?
A: Because I am not a politician or a diplomat. I’m a businessman. The president is not doing the type of business that requires such meetings. During his time in the White House, it was different. I would say the same thing for any country. I would not have met him if he was the British prime minister either.
Q: You have not contacted Trump during his four years of presidency?
A: No, I have not made any contact with. I did not meet with him.
Q: You have not seen anybody from his family either? His daughter, sons, or son-in-law?
A: I only met with Jared Kushner at TAİK's last conference in 2019 Washington DC. Traditionally, we welcome people from the administration at the conferences we hold in Washington. Joe Biden, for example, came to our conference when he was vice president and delivered a speech. That contact with Kushner was an official contact I made in my capacity as the Chair of TAİK. There is nothing wrong with this. But there has been no contact as friends, and it shouldn’t be. But, now, I am happy for the future. Finally, after Trump has handed over the presidency, our friendship as ordinary citizens can continue as before.
Q: Are you planning to call him?
A: After the dust settles, of course I’m thinking of calling him. I only
congratulated him when he became the president. And after he left the presidency, it is our tradition to call. According to our customs, one should be a friend for better or for worse. Now I would like to call him and chat about this interesting process.
Q: Do you think he was wrong, especially most recently, when he objected to the election results, resulting in the Congressional raid?
A: I don’t want to say anything about this because being a politician is something different. When I look at it as a businessman, right and wrong are different. It would not be an accurate assessment. Of course, there is no way anyone would approve of violence. Protests, criticisms and demonstrations are fine. These are democratic rights and freedoms, but I do not approve of extremes such as the rampage at the Capitol building. This was wrong, but, of course, Trump thought he was managing the economy well, and he seemed happy with the work he was doing. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, maybe the election would have had a different result. When demoralized, people can panic. Perhaps this caused him to mismanage the process.
Q: What would the Trump you know do next? Is there any chance he will just retreat?
A: Trump is still very strong within the Republican Party. Those senators that Trump refused to support might not get reelected. If he formed a new party, he would receive at least 10 percent of the vote. It would then be difficult for the Republican Party to win a presidency again in America, as currently even 1 percent of the vote is vital. We have seen a similar turn of events in the past. As a result, Trump will remain a key figure. The Republican Party and Trump will determine the new presidential candidate in the next election. Trump believes he would have been re-elected if the COVID-19 pandemic had not erupted. The only development that would prevent Trump from running for office again would be a political ban or lawsuits against his companies. If such things are imposed, then Trump supporters will consolidate and become even stronger. In short, it looks like we are going to witness a four-year term that is likely to be upsetting and painful.