Bolton Exclusives 1: What does Bolton’s book say about Turkey?

U.S. President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton’s new 577-page book, ‘The Room Where It Happened’, reveals that Trump’s Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had a quite impact on U.S. policy in Syria and elsewhere.

Ahval has obtained a copy of Bolton’s memoir, which is expected to be released next week but whose publication the White House is currently try to block through an emergency order.

The book paints a picture in which Erdoğan’s frequent calls with Trump were very effective in getting the U.S. president to do what Ankara wants, though he also failed on several fronts – including on extraditing the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Erdoğan blames for masterminding the failed coup attempt of 2016, and on getting the U.S. authorities drop charges against Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, which was indicted of involvement in a complex scheme to circumvent sanctions on Iran between 2011 and 2016.

On page 191 of his book, Bolton said that, during a meeting between Erdoğan and Trump in Argentina on Dec 1, 2018, the U.S. president promised to try to help his Turkish counterpart with the Halkbank case:

“Erdoğan provided a memo by the law firm representing Halkbank, which Trump did nothing more than flip through before declaring he believed Halkbank was totally innocent of violating U.S. Iran sanctions. Trump asked whether we could reach Acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker, which I sidestepped. 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.”

Bolton, in his book, calls this “nonsense” because “the prosecutors were career Justice Department employees, who would have proceeded the same way if the Halkbank investigation started in the eight year of Trump’s presidency rather than the eighth year of Obama’s. It was as though Trump was trying to show he had as much arbitrary authority as Erdoğan, who had said twenty year earlier as mayor of Istanbul, “Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it to the stop you want, and then you get off.”

Trump, then, “rolled on” according to Bolton and said, “he didn’t want anything bad to happen to Erdoğan or Turkey, and that he would work very hard on the issue. Erdoğan also complained about Kurdish forces in Syria (which Trump didn’t address) and then raised Fethullah Gülen, asking yet again that he be extradited to Turkey.”

According to Bolton:

“Trump hypothesised that Gülen would only last one day if he were returned to Turkey. The Turks laughed but said Gülen needn’t worry, since Turkey had no death penalty. Fortunately, the bilateral ended shortly thereafter. Nothing good was going to come of this renewed bromance with yet another authoritarian foreign leader.”

A few months before this encounter, following Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, Erdoğan called Trump to speak about the evangelical U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson - who spent two and a half years in prison in Turkey - and his supposed “relationship” to Gülen. Bolton continued:

“Erdoğan also raised another favourite subject, frequently discussed with Trump: the conviction of Mehmet Atilla, a senior official of the state-run Turkish bank Halkbank, for financial fraud stemming from massive violations of our Iran sanctions. This ongoing criminal investigation threatened Erdoğan himself because of allegations he and his family used Halkbank or personal purposes, facilitated further when his son-in-law became Turkey’s Finance Minister. To Erdoğan, Gülen and his “movement” were responsible for the Halkbank charges, so it was all part of a conspiracy against him, not to mentioned against his family’s growing wealth. He wanted the Halkbank case dropped, unlikely now that U.S. prosecutors had their hooks sunk deep into the bank’s fraudulent operations. Finally, Erdoğan fretted about pending legislation in Congress that would halt the sale of F-35s to Turkey because Ankara was purchasing Russia’s S-400 air defence system. If consummated, that purchase would also trigger mandatory sanctions against Turkey under a 2017 anti-Russia sanctions statute. Erdoğan had a lot to worry about.”

On page 185, Bolton also had a lot to say about Trump’s dealings with Erdoğan on pastor Brunson:

What Trump wanted, however, was very limited: when would Brunson be released to return to America, which he thought Erdoğan had pledged? Erdoğan said only that the Turkish judicial process was continuing, and Brunson was no longer imprisoned, but under house arrest in Izmir, Turkey. Trump replied that he thought that was very unhelpful, because he had expected to hear Erdoğan tell him that Brunson, who was just a local minister, was coming home. Trump stressed his friendship with Erdoğan, but implied it would be impossible even for him to fix the hard issues facing the U.S.-Turkey relationship unless Brunson was returned to the U.S. Trump was genuinely agitated. After a riff on Tillerson (Trumps’ first Secretary of State Rex 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.”

Bolton also provided details about U.S. Syria policy, Erdoğan's influence on Trump's withdrawal decision, Erdoğan's war on Syrian Kurds and his efforts to undermine the fight against ISIS, which could be read here.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.