Timeline: Trump, Barr, and the Halkbank Case on Iran Sanctions-Busting

At its heart, the prosecution of the Turkish bank Halkbank involves a multibillion-dollar criminal scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. There is significant evidence in the public record that  President Donald Trump’s directed Attorney General William Barr to try to stop the prosecution of the bank and its associates. It would not necessarily be improper for a president to seek such an outcome in the face of a strong competing national interest. But it would be highly improper, if not criminal, for the president and his attorney general to do so if motivated by the president’s personal or financial interests. 

Which was it? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly considered the president’s effort to get the Justice Department to drop the case an illegal interference in an ongoing investigation. He objected to the president’s effort in an Oval Office meeting, and repeated his objections to Chief of Staff John Kelly. National security advisor John Bolton said he considered the president’s actions an “obstruction of justice.”

The timeline below provides a comprehensive account of the publicly available information concerning Trump’s and Barr’s actions. If readers believe we have missed any significant information, whether favorable or unfavorable to the president and attorney general, please send us an email via lte@justsecurity.org.

Trump’s direction to Barr to protect Halkbank was reportedly at the direct and repeated request of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The alleged criminal scheme implicated Erdoğan personally. Barr reportedly led the effort, but did not succeed. He was met with stiff resistance from the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman. 

There is a strange twist to these events in light of today’s political landscape. During the time of the Obama administration, President Erdoğan reportedly tried to prevail upon Vice President Joseph Biden to stop the prosecution of the bank and its associates. Biden rejected the request.   

The stakes were high for Erdoğan. In 2013, Turkish police officers launched an investigation into the same alleged crimes and accused 60 individuals of corruption, money laundering, illegal gold exportation, including Halkbank CEO Sulyeman Aslan and Iranian-Turkish Businessman Reza Zarrab. Erdoğan reacted defensively: he blamed his political rival (Fetullah Gülen) and the United States Ambassador for the investigation, launched a campaign to discredit the investigation, and eventually removed 350 police officers. The Turkish prosecutor’s office dropped the charges. 

Three years later, in 2016, the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a criminal indictment charging three prominent business people related to Halkbank for conduct involved in the same scheme. That’s where our timeline begins.

TIMELINE

March 21, 2016: The Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office (SDNY) unseals an indictment against three defendants for conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, laundering money, and committing bank fraud on behalf of the Government of Iran. 

The SDNY charges the three prominent business people–Reza Zarrab, Camelia Jamshidy, and Hossein Najafzadeh–with conspiring to defraud the United States, violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, commit bank fraud, and launder money as well as with committing overt acts to effectuate their conspiracies. 

“As alleged, these defendants conspired for years to violate and evade United States sanctions against Iran and Iranian entities,” states the SDNY U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara. “By allegedly laundering money through institutions around the world, Reza Zarrab, Camelia Jamshidy, and Hossein Najafzadeh undermined the U.S. sanctions regime imposed against Iran, and committed federal crimes.”

Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin adds: 

“According to charges in the indictment, Zarrab, Jamshidy and Najafzadeh circumvented U.S. sanctions by conducting millions of dollars-worth of transactions on behalf of the Iranian government and Iranian businesses.  These alleged violations, as well as the subsequent efforts taken to cover up these illicit actions, undermined U.S. laws designed to protect national security interests.  The National Security Division will continue to vigorously pursue and bring to justice those who seek to violate U.S. sanctions.”

Earlier in the week, the FBI arrested Iranian-Turkish businessman, Reza Zarrab, in Miami National Airport. The other two individuals charged remain at large. 

May 25, 2016: An SDNY memorandum ties Zarrab to President Erdoğan. 

An SDNY memorandum, submitted in opposition to Zarrab’s request for bail, references at length a Turkish prosecutor’s 2013 report that “describes how Zarrab and high-ranking Turkish officials conspired to obstruct the Turkish investigation,” and notes “the close ties between Zarrab and high-ranking Turkish officials, including Erdoğan.” 

June 25, 2016: Trump’s financial interests in Turkey and Erdoğan: Citing the presidential candidate’s intolerance for “Muslims in America,” Erdoğan demands that Trump’s name be removed from “Trump Towers Istanbul,” a building in the Mecidiyeköy district in central Istanbul. 

President Erdoğan demands that Donald Trump’s name be taken down from a Turkish-owned building, according to the website of Turkey’s state broadcaster. Erdoğan says that the presidential candidate “has no tolerance for Muslims in America” and that Trump’s branding on the Turkish-building “must come down.” 

The building, Trump Towers Istanbul, is owned by Turkish company Dogan Holdings, who pays the Trump Organization to license the Trump name and brand. During a press conference marking the opening of the new Trump Towers on April 20, 2012, Trump expressed his interest in real estate investments in the country, stating, “Turkey is a perfect country for investments. I can certainly say that it is one of the privileged countries for our investments.”  

September 21 and 25, 2016: Erdoğan presses Vice President Biden for the release of Zarrab and the firing of Bharara. 

In a private meeting with Vice President Biden, on Sept. 21, President Erdoğan reportedly demands the release of Zarrab and the firing of Bharara. On the same day, Erdoğan’s wife pleads the case to Jill Biden.

On Sept. 25, Erdoğan states in a press conference that he discussed the Iranian sanctions case with Vice President Biden, in which he allegedly demanded that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara be removed, and falsely claims that the U.S. Attorney as well as the judge assigned to the case were both colluding with his political rival, Fetullah Gülen.  

In a press conference, President Erdoğan states that he brought up the Halkbank case to Vice President Joe Biden: 

“In my talks with Biden, I also brought up the Reza Zarrab issue when the judiciary subject was raised. The court which the U.S. Department of Justice referred this case to is also interesting. Both prosecutor [Preet] Bharara and judge Richard Berman are names who had previously been hosted by FETÖ [the Fethullahist Terror Organization] in Turkey. In other words, the U.S. Department of Justice handed Zarrab over to names which FETÖ had wined and dined. I told this to Biden. He said, ‘I did not know that much.”

Erdoğan adds: “[T]he fact that our name is attempted to be put on the indictment reveals that there is a malicious intent here.” It is not clear what reference Erdoğan has in mind. It may be to the SNDY memorandum from May 25, 2016 on denial of bail (entry above).

Early November, 2016: Based on court filings, the Turkish Justice Minister allegedly asks President Obama’s U.S Attorney Loretta Lynch to release one of the indicted men. 

According to court filings, Turkish Justice Minister, Bekir Bozdağ, asks U.S Attorney Loretta Lynch to release Zarrab from U.S. custody and return him to Turkey. Lynch rejected the request. 

November 9, 2016: President-Elect Trump speaks to Erdoğan about his business interests in Istanbul, according to independent Turkish newspapers.  

The day after winning the election, President-Elect Trump speaks to Turkish President Erdoğan about his business relationships in Istanbul. According to independent Turkish paper Diken, Trump tells Erdoğan that his Turkish business partner Mehmet Ali Yalcindag is a “close friend” and is “great admirer” of the Turkish President. 

Yalcindag’s wife sits on the board of Dogan Holdings, the company who owns Trump Towers Istanbul, and her father, Aydin Dogan, is the former president of the company. 

During the campaign Trump remarked in an interview, on Dec. 1, 2015, “I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul.”

December 15, 2016: In his penultimate phone call with outgoing President Obama, President Erdoğan reportedly presses the issue of Zarrab’s case as he had done with Vice President Biden on Sept. 21.

January 3, 2017: In his final phone call with outgoing President Obama, President Erdoğan reportedly presses the issue of Zarrab’s case as he had done with Vice President Biden on Sept. 21.

March 7, 2017: As noted previously at Just Security, President Trump’s former  national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, retroactively files as a foreign agent of the government of Turkey in the first week of March 2017.

March 11, 2017: President Trump fires U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). 

Bharara says he was suddenly fired even though, on Nov. 30, 2016, President-Elect Trump had personally asked Bharara to remain.

March 28, 2017: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) charges a prominent businessman, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, for conspiring with others including Riza Zarrab, in the commission of bribery, fraud, and sanction evasion on behalf of the Government of Iran and other Iranian entities for a period of at least five years, from 2010 to 2015. 

Sometime in 2017: President Trump urges Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help pressure the Department of Justice into dropping the criminal case against Riza Zarrab, according to three people familiar with the meeting. 

President Trump asks then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help pressure the Department of Justice into dropping the criminal case against one of the defendants, Riza Zarrab, a client of Rudy Giuliani. As reported by Bloomberg News, Tillerson refuses to do so, stating that it would be illegal.

February, 2017: Rudy Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, lawyers for one of the defendants, travel to Turkey to meet with Erdoğan about the Iran sanctions case. 

Court files from the Zarrab docket reveal that Rudy Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, part of Zarrab’s defense team, meet with President Erdoğan in Turkey to discuss the case. 

May 19, 2017: The Turkish government hires a top Trump fundraiser and personal friend of the president for “strategic consulting” with the U.S. government. 

According to publicly filed financial statements, the Turkish government hires U.S consulting firm Ballard Partners, Inc. for “strategic consulting” before the U.S. government in order to enhance US-Turkey bilateral relations, among other interests, for $125,000 per month. 

Ballard Partners is run by Brian Ballard, hailed as “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington” and who was formerly one of President Trump’s top fundraisers during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Brian Ballard is a personal friend of the President. 

For a deep dive on Ballard Partners’ work on behalf of Turkey in the Halkbank case, read Courthouse News’ reporting.

September 6, 2017: In a superseding indictment, the SDNY charges more executives at Halkbank with conspiracy, fraud, bribery, and sanction evasion in order to benefit the Government of Iran. 

“The leaders of a Turkish bank majority-owned by the Government of Turkey … knowingly facilitated the scheme, participated in the design of fraudulent transactions intended to deceive U.S. regulators and foreign banks, and lied to U.S. regulators about [the bank’s] involvement,” the Justice Department states.

October 2017: Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab pleads guilty and agrees to cooperate with the Department of Justice.

Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab pleads guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States, as court filing in Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla’s case reveal. 

November 30, 2017: Zarrab testifies in court that Erdoğan was  involved in the Halkbank scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. 

Zarrab, now a key witness in Hakan Atilla’s trial, testifies that President Erdoğan personally ordered that Halkbank participate in the gold scheme that violated United States sanctions on Iran.

During the trial, Zarrab also testifies that his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, were not successful in convincing Trump administration officials to negotiate a diplomatic resolution to his case. 

May 16, 2018: After a jury trial, Halkbank executive is sentenced to 32 months in prison. 

Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla is sentenced to 32 months after a unanimous jury found that he criminally conspired to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran. Court documents reveal that Halkbank has funded Atilla’s defense.

June 22, 2018: Judge Berman raises significant concerns about Giuliani’s “unprecedented effort to terminate this federal criminal case” by getting Trump to intervene.

The Judge notes in an exclusive interview with Courthouse News: 

“I am still stunned by the fact that Rudy was hired to be – and he very actively pursued – being the ‘go between’ between President Trump and Turkey’s President Erdogan in an unprecedented effort to terminate this federal criminal case in the middle of the case … Had Rudy succeeded, he and the two presidents I mentioned, would have helped very significantly the country of Iran – which was the beneficiary of the conspiracies to avoid USA sanctions against Iran, i.e. the very heart of the allegations in this case. … My head still spins when I consider that.”

July-October 2018: Halkbank’s consultant, and Trump’s personal friend, repeatedly speaks to Trump’s personal attorney. 

As reported in filing statements with the DOJ, Halkbank’s consultant on “diplomatic relations,” Brian Ballard, calls Jay Sekulow, President Trump’s personal attorney as well as chief counsel for the evangelical advocacy group ACLJ, six times with regard to “US-Turkey relations.” 

During this time, Halkbank pays Ballard Partners $762,476.56 for consulting fees. 

July 26, 2018: President Trump threatens to impose sanctions on Turkey, citing issues with Turkey jailing an evangelical American priest who the Turkish authorities claim aided the 2016 Turkish military coup. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton later criticizes President Trump for being resistant to imposing the sanctions and states that he believes that Trump’s personal or financial interests influenced the President’s position. 

President Trump threatens on Twitter: “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!” 

Andrew Brunson is an American Pastor who lived in Turkey for over two decades. In December 2016, Turkey charged Brunson with being a member of a terrorist organization who aided the 2016 military coup. He was sentenced to three years and one and a half months in prison. He later states that both Sen. Lindsay Graham and President Trump told him that he was a victim of “hostage-diplomacy” and being held for political reasons. 

In former National Security Advisor’s John Bolton recounting of events, he claims that Erdoğan called President Trump to discuss the Pastor’s “relationship” to his ideological political opponent–Fetullah Gülen–but during the call once again requested that the Halkbank charges be dropped. Bolton recalls that President Trump stressed his friendship with Erdoğan and was “genuinely agitated.” He recounts: 

“After a riff on Tillerson, and puzzled expressions about Gülen (which Trump claimed was the first time he had heard about it), he said incredulously (and inaccurately), that Erdoğan was telling him that Brunson wouldn’t be coming home. That was why no one would do business with Erdoğan, Trump complained, especially because America’s entire Christian community was upset about this one pastor; they were going crazy. Erdoğan answered that the Moslem community in Turkey was going crazy, but Trump interrupted to say they were going crazy all over the world, which they were free to do. If possible, the conversation went downhill thereafter. … 

Trump had finally found someone he relished sanctioning, saying ‘large sanctions’ would ensue if Brunson wasn’t returned to the US. On August 2, Treasury sanctioned Turkey’s Justice and Interior Ministers, and two days later, Turkey sanctioned their counterparts. Although we had discussed these measures with Trump, he told me later that day he thought it was insulting to Turkey to sanction Cabinet officials. Instead, he wanted to double the existing steel tariffs on Turkey to 50 percent, which appalled the economic team.” 

Later, former National Security Advisor John Bolton criticizes President Trump for being resistant to imposing the Turkish sanctions and states that he believes that Trump’s personal or financial interests influence the President’s position on Turkey. 

August 4, 2018: Erdoğan directs Turkish authorities to “freeze the assets of America’s justice and interior ministers in Turkey, if there are any” in response to the U.S. economic sanctions. 

August 10, 2018: President Trump imposes double tariffs on Turkey.  

President Trump doubles tariffs on steel and aluminium tariffs, tweeting “[o]ur relations with Turkey are not good at this time!” 

October 11, 2018: Turkey agrees to free Pastor Brunson in exchange for a commitment to ease economic pressure, reportedly helping soothe relations for Halkbank to discuss their case with the Trump administration. 

Turkey agrees to free Pastor Andrew Brunson in exchange for “a commitment by the US to ease economic pressure on Turkey,” NBC News reports. The talks that lead to Brunson’s release help Turkey soothe relations with the United States and help Halkbank talk to the administration about their case, reports Courthouse News and Mother Jones.

As John Bolton recalls in his book, Bolton, Mnuchin, and Pompeo worked together to try and navigate the Brunson release but the DOJ prosecutors are resistant: 

“In three-way conversations, Mnuchin, Pompeo, and I agreed nothing would be done without the full agreement from the Justice Department prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, where the case, involving over $20 billion in Iran sanctions violations, was pending. … In each case, the deal fell apart when Justice tanked it, which was why trying this route to bet Brunson’s release was never going to work. Pompeo said, ‘The Turks just can’t get out of their own way,’ but it was in fact Justice prosecutors who rightly rejected deals worth next to nothing from the US government’s perspective. In the meantime, Turkey’s currency continued to depreciate rapidly, and its stock market wasn’t doing much better.

[During the negotiations for Brunson’s release], Erdoğan went almost instantly from being one of Trump’s best international buddies to being a target of vehement hostility. … Also possible, of course, was Trump’s returning again to ‘best buddy’ mode, which did in fact happen here just a few months later.” 

November 5, 2018: Turkish Finance Minister Albayrak reports to Turkish media that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is receptive to Turkish appeals to forgo the Halkbank prosecution. 

Turkish Finance Minister Albayrak reports to Turkish media that he had a positive meeting with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. “He said he would follow the process closely,” Albayrak stated. “We told them that Halkbank had not violated sanctions. … We have positive expectations.” 

November 2018: President Erdoğan states to Turkish press that he urged President Trump to intervene in the criminal investigation against Halkbank.   

President Erdoğan tells Turkish media that he urged President Trump to intervene to stop the Halkbank investigation on a phone call. Erdoğan tells Turkish media that President Trump “would instruct the relevant ministers immediately” on the Halkbank issue. Erdoğan also stated that U.S. officials called the Turkish Treasury and Finance minister the next day. 

“Talks are underway about this issue. It is very important that this process has begun,” states the Turkish president. 

December 1, 2018: Erdoğan and Trump meet at the Buenos Aires G20 summit “largely discussing Halkbank,” according to John Bolton. President Trump allegedly tells Erdoğan that he would “take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” recalls Bolton.  

As John Bolton recalls, during the meeting, Erdoğan gave President Trump a memo prepared by the law firm representing Halkbank, which is currently King & Spalding. President Trump then flipped through the memo and declared that “he believed Halkbank was totally innocent of violating US Iran sanctions.” 

John Bolton also recalls: 

“Trump then told Erdoğan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people. … Trump rolled on, claiming he didn’t want anything bad to happen to Erdoğan or Turkey, and that he would work very hard on the issue.” 

At the time, Geoffrey Berman was the judicially appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

December 14, 2018: Trump and Erdoğan speak again, according to Bolton, and Trump tells Erdoğan that the U.S. is close to coming to a resolution on Halkbank. 

Bolton recalls: 

“On December 14, Trump and Erdoğan spoke by phone. I briefed Trump beforehand on the situation in Syria, and he said, ‘we should get the hell out of there,’ which I feared he would also say directly to Erdoğan. Trump started by saying we were getting very close to a resolution on Halkbank. He had just spoken to Mnuchin and Pompeo, and said we would be dealing with Erdoğan’s great son-in-law (Turkey’s Finance Minister) to get it off his shoulders. Erdoğan was very grateful, speaking in English no less.” 

April 2019: Erdoğan asks Trump to avoid charging Halkbank again, according to officials familiar with the matter. 

In an April phone call, Trump reportedly told Erdoğan that William Barr and Steven Mnuchin would handle the Halkbank issue “according to two people familiar with the matter.” 

April 15, 2019: Secretary Treasury Steve Mnuchin meets with Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak. 

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin meets with Berat Albayrak, President Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Turkish Finance Minister. Albayrak also meets with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, Reuters reports. 

Minister Albayrak was in Washington to attend a conference organized by President Trump’s Turkish business partner, Yalcindag, at the Trump International Hotel.

April 23, 2019: According to Bolton, Barr and Bolton meet to discuss “Trump’s penchant to, in effect, give personal favors to dictators he liked, such as the criminal cases of Halkbank, ZTE, potentially Huawei.” 

June 2019: Barr urges Turkey to accept a deferred prosecution agreement, according to officials familiar on the matter. 

National Security Advisor John Bolton tells a Turkish official that Trump will not directly engage on the Halkbank case and that Turkish officials should stop raising it with the president, according to officials familiar with the matter. 

At the same time, Attorney General Barr tells the Turkish Minister of Justice that Halkbank should reach a deal with the SDNY, or else it would go to trial. According to officials familiar with the matter, Barr suggests that Turkey accept a deferred prosecution agreement (which comes with a fine and contractual agreement to improve operations to avoid further wrongdoing). 

August 1, 2019: Barr and Bolton discuss the Halkbank investigation, according to Bolton. 

Barr states that he was waiting to hear back from Halkbank’s counsel on the Justice Department’s latest settlement offer, according to Bolton. 

October 6, 2019: President Trump approves of Turkey’s invasion of Northern Syria, a decision that is heavily criticized by both Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Lindsey Graham calls the decision to withdraw from Syria a “disaster in the making.” 

The White House issues a press release stating that President Trump spoke with President Erdoğan by telephone and stating that the United States approves of the Turkish government invading Northern Syria (effectively green lighting the destruction of U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters) and that the United States will not be involved. 

The move is criticized by both Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Lindsey Graham calls the decision to withdraw from Syria a “disaster in the making.” 

October 7, 2019: Responding to criticism, Trump states he won’t allow Turkey to do anything “off limits.” 

President Donald Trump tweets

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over…the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!” 

October 9, 2019: Trump pressures Turkey to protect Kurdish fighters by threatening to “destroy” the Turkish economy.

President Trump writes a letter to President Erdoğan cajoling: 

“Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for destroying thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy–and I will. I’ve already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson […] I will call you later.”

October 10, 2019: Sen. Lindsey Graham falls for a prank call by a Russian radio host posing as the Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar. During the call, Graham suggests that President Trump wants to be helpful to Turkey in the Halkbank case. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham falls for a prank call by a Russian radio host posing as the Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar. In the call, Sen. Graham states that President Trump is “sensitive” about the case “involving the Turkish bank” and does not want that case to hurt Turkish-U.S. relations. “The president wants to be helpful, within the limits of his power,” said Graham.

October 14, 2019: President Trump imposes sanctions on Turkey. Commentators call them “toothless.” 

President Trump signs an executive order imposing sanctions over Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria. Commentators call them “toothless.” 

October 15, 2019: A Grand Jury indicts Halkbank for a multibillion-dollar scheme including: (1) conspiring to defraud the United States, (2) conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), (3) commiting bank fraud, (4) conspiring to commit bank fraud (5) laundering money; and (6) conspiring to commit money laundering. 

The U.S. government alleges that high-ranking government officials in Iran and Turkey participated in a scheme to defraud U.S. regulators and foreign banks. The government alleges that proceeds from sales of oil and gas to Turkey’s national oil company and gas company were deposited into three of Halkbank bank accounts: the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Company (“NIOC”), and the National Iranian Gas Company. These transactions, if true, would have exposed Halkbank to sanctions under U.S. law. 

Under this “gold scheme,” Halkbank would transfer Iranian oil proceeds to front companies and exchange houses in order for those exchange houses and front companies to buy gold for export from Turkey. That gold was then exported and converted into cash or currency and remitted to the Government of Iran. Turkish officials would then lie to the U.S. government officials, covering up the scheme and artificially inflating Turkey’s export statistics. 

The same day, Halkbank denies the charges. “These were filed as part of the sanctions introduced against our country by the U.S. government in response to Operation Peace Spring, heroically launched by the Turkish army to secure our borders and establish peace in the region,” the Bank states. President Erdoğan calls the charges an “unlawful, ugly” step. 

October 17, 2019: Vice President Pence meets with Erdoğan. 

Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security advisor Robert O’Brien travel to Turkey to meet with President Erdoğan. 

While Turkey agrees to pause its military operations in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu states that Turkey “got what [they] wanted.” The same day, Cavusoglu further states, “This is not a cease-fire, cease-fires can be done only between two legitimate sides.” 

Fawaz Gerges, a leading authority on the Middle East and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, calls the agreement a “capitulation” to Turkey that “reaffirms the humiliation of the Trump administration and its betrayal of the Kurds, its loyal allies.” 

October 21, 2019: After serving his sentence in U.S. prison for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, Attila returns to Turkey and becomes the Director General of the Istanbul stock exchange. 

October 23, 2019: Trump removes all Turkish sanctions. 

After eight days, the Treasury Department removes all Turkish sanctions. Adeline Van Houtte, a Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, says the removal is “another victory” for Turkey since the “US sanctions on Turkey were weak and have now been lifted, making Turkey’s life even easier.” 

November 12, 2019: Former National Security advisor John Bolton questions Trump’s motivations in Turkey, suggesting that President Trump’s personal or business relationships influence the President’s position on Turkey. 

In a private speech, John Bolton criticizes President Trump’s original resistance to the Turkish sanctions and states that he believes that Trump’s personal or business relationships are influencing the President’s position on Turkey. 

November 13-14, 2019: Erdoğan visits the United States, and Trump says he’s a “big fan” of the Turkish President.

November 25, 2019: Treasury reports that Trump asked federal agencies to look into Erdoğan’s concerns about Halkbank.

In response to an investigation from Sen. Ron Wyden (a ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee), the Treasury Department reports that President Trump asked multiple federal agencies to address President Erdoğan’s concerns over the Halkbank case. 

The Treasury Department also reports that Secretary Mnuchin met with senior officials from the government of Turkey “on multiple occasions to discuss a range of foreign policy and national security issues.” The Treasury Department states: 

“At some of those meetings Turkish government officials expressed concern about the impact on Halkbank of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. As was publicly reported, when Prime Minister Erdoğan raised concerns directly with President Trump in April 2019, the President referred the issue to the Executive Branch departments responsible by law for the investigation and enforcement of economic sanctions–the Treasury and DOJ.”

The Treasury Department confirms that Steve Mnuchin met with Turkish government officials seven times between April 2017 and November 2019 and, at some of those meetings, the Halkbank case was discussed. 

January 28, 2020: In response to leaks of Bolton’s book, Barr denies having a discussion about “personal favors” or “undue influence” on any investigations.  

February 3, 2020: Sen. Wyden requests information from Barr about his involvement in the Halkbank investigation.

Sen. Wyden writes to Attorney General Barr demanding more information about Barr’s involvement and possible interference in the Halkbank investigation. He requests that Barr recuse himself in the investigation and prosecution of Halkbank. 

February 15, 2020: Reports surface that Barr led the effort to negotiate a “sweetheart deal” with Halkbank at Trump’s request, but met resistance from the U.S. Attorney Berman

CNN reports that, at Trump’s request, Attorney General Barr spearheaded the effort to negotiate a settlement with Halkbank in order to avoid charges but that SDNY U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman insisted on pursuing a criminal prosecution.

Sen. Ron Wyden tweets: “I’ve been investigating Trump’s interference in the investigation into Turkish-owned Halkbank, and my suspicions were just confirmed. Attorney General Barr — at Trump’s request — was trying to orchestrate a sweetheart deal to please President Erdoğan.”

By June 17: Bolton’s book is obtained by multiple news outlets who begin publishing analysis and excerpts from the book. 

The book contains an exchange where Trump promises Erdoğan he will get rid of the leadership of the Southern District to protect Halkbank. 

June 20, 2020: Attorney General Barr and President Trump fire Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. 

The New York Times reports, according to three people familiar with the matter, that one point of contention between Berman and the White House was his approach to the Halkbank case. 

June 21, 2020: Former National Security Advisor John Bolton states that what happened in the Halkbank case “felt like obstruction of justice.” 

In an interview with ABC News Martha Raddatz, Bolton describes President Trump’s multiple conversations with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. He states that “what Erdoğan wanted was basically a settlement that would take the pressure off Halkbank. And let’s be clear, what Halkbank had done was violate U.S. laws respecting sanctions on Iran.” The former national security adviser explains further: 

“So if this had been a U.S. financial institution, we would’ve toasted them, and quite properly so. So it was not a case where Halkbank was being treated by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York more harshly than an American bank. It was just really looking for the same kind of treatment.

And the president said to Erdoğan at one point, ‘Look, those prosecutors in New York are Obama people. Wait till I get my people in and then we’ll take care of this.’ And I thought to myself — and I’m a Department of Justice alumnus myself — ‘I’ve never heard any president say anything like that. Ever.’

Now ultimately, I think Attorney General Barr got the prosecution of Halkbank that they deserved because the Turks wouldn’t agree to anything like a reasonable settlement. So it turned out all right. But that’s so far. That’s how close we got. That’s how close we got. And I find that disturbing. … 

[B]ut I tell ya, it did feel like obstruction of justice to me. The president has enormous power in the law enforcement area. The executive power is vested in the president.

And the attorney general, as the Supreme Court said in the famous case, the attorney general is the hand of the president in fulfilling the president’s duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. But that means faithful execution means execution that’s not politically motivated. And — this idea that you give Erdoğan and his family, who use Halkbank like a slush fund — in exchange for, what? — some hope down the road of some other kind of treatment for Trump or the country — was very troubling.” 

July 14, 2020: Halkbank seeks Judge Richard Berman’s recusal in the case.

July 20, 2020: The Second Circuit affirms Atilla’s conviction. The court finds that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. 

The court finds that: 

“[T]he evidence demonstrated that the purpose of the scheme was to convert Iranian oil proceeds held at Halkbank into a form that could be used to fund international payments on behalf of the Government of Iran and Iranian entities[,] … showed that these international payments were likely to pass through the U.S. financial system[,] … showed that senior-level executives at Halkbank knew the particulars of the scheme, including the importance of the international payments and of U.S.-dollar transactions[,] … demonstrated that Atilla knew that the international payments involved in the scheme were payments on behalf of Iranian clients that Halkbank itself refused to process directly[,] … [and] Atilla repeatedly lied to Treasury officials to conceal the sanctions avoidance scheme.” 

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).

Danielle Schulkin

Fellow at Just Security. JD, New York University School of Law. Prior to entering law school, she worked at the United States Department of Justice on the 2008 Financial Crisis Task Force and at the Geneva Initiative, an Israeli-Palestinian peace process think tank. Follow her on Twitter (@DaniSchulkin).