How Erdoğan got a foot in early with Trump - report

As the first four-year term of U.S. President Donald J. Trump nearly ends, new revelations on Friday showed how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government got a foot in the door by setting up an early meeting with Brian Ballard, Trump’s close confidant who has since turned into the most powerful lobbyist.

The investigative report conducted by European watchdog Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the Courthouse News' Adam Klasfeld and NBC is primarily based on interviews with Lev Parnas, a Florida businessman who rose to nationwide fame in the United States in the lead up to Trump’s impeachment due to dealings with Ukraine.

The piece attempts to explain how Trump’s relationship with Erdoğan was built up by a number of oligarchs with ties to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

The investigation reports on for the first time a Watergate Hotel meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoglu, Trump confidant Brian Ballard, Azerbaijani-Turkish businessman Mübariz Mansimov and Parnas.

Mansimov was arrested in Turkey in early 2020, and is currently facing terrorism charges over alleged ties with the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, blamed for the failed coup attempt in 2016.

This meeting is significant because it shows how early the Turkish government laid out a gameplan to reach out to the new U.S. administration by showing a willingness to hire Ballard, who was a mega-donor in Florida for Trump’s election campaign.

Text messages and photos obtained from Parnas shows how the Ballard Partners and the Turkish administration initially communicated via middlemen, Parnas and Mansimov.  

Ballard Partners, for several years after the Watergate meeting, had multi-million dollar lobbying contracts with both the Turkish government and the Turkish government-controlled Halkbank.

Mübariz Mansimov, according to Parnas, also conveyed how he gifted a large oil tanker to Erdoğan’s family during one of their journeys to abroad.

There have been many attempts to understand why and how the Erdoğan government and the Trump administration got on so well for several years. Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin’s lobbying contract with Trump’s first National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was the earliest and most serious tie between the two leaders. Alptekin was the former head of U.S.-Turkey Business Council, then indicted by the U.S. federal prosecutors, and he currently cannot travel outside of Turkey. Flynn got fired from his position only weeks after Trump inaugurated. 

Armenian-American Lev Aslan Dermen, infamous as a crime boss, was convicted in 2020 after court proceedings in Salt Lake City due to a half billion dollar fraud scheme with the Mornon crime family the Kingstons.

Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, another figure who cannot travel to the U.S. who was implicated during the court case where Dermen was convicted, used to be a close ally of Alptekin before they had a fall out. In a recent court proceedings, U.S. prosecutors asked the court to retrieve all of Baran's assets back to Turkey, claiming those were bought by Kingston Family by the fraudulent money received from the U.S. government.

The new joint report now has revealed how Çavuşoğlu, with his official capacity, was able to identify one of the most powerful lobbyists in the U.S. capital with the help of some of these oligarchs even before Trump was inaugurated, and went on to sign contracts shortly after.

The “special relationship” between Trump and Erdoğan attracted even more attention when Trump’s second National Security Adviser John Bolton published a book, citing incidents where Trump unexpectedly sided with Erdoğan and appeared very receptive to the requests of Turkey’s strongman. One of those requests was Erdoğan’s wish from Trump to dismiss the Halkbank case. Despite promises by Trump, Halkbank was indicted in October of 2019.

One of the top priorities of the Erdoğan government was to get Reza Zarrab out of jail. Zarrab was a gold smuggling Azerbaijani-Turkish businessman who helped to circumvent the U.S. sanctions on Iran through a number of schemes, which were conceived within the Turkish state bank, Halkbank, according to evidence and testimony provided by Reza Zarrab in late 2017 hearings at a federal court in New York’s Southern District.

According to WhatsApp messages between Mansimov and Parnas, sent in January 2017, Mansimov pointed to Reza Zarrab as the top priority for the lobbying deal between the Turkish administration and the Ballard Partners.

It was also reported by the New York Times in 2017 that Trump’s personal lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was another go-between Trump and Erdoğan to get Zarrab out of U.S. jails.

Zarrab’s high profile relations in Turkey and close links to Erdoğan and his allies, made him too risky to be allowed to confess his sanction-busting activities at a U.S. court. Despite all of Erdoğan’s efforts, Zarrab was not let out of jail and eventually gave lengthy court testimonies explaining the scheme he helped operate to circumvent sanctions. The case against Halkbank continues at the same federal district court.