Trump’s involvement in Halkbank case obstruction of justice, says former advisor Bolton
U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s willingness provide his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with a settlement in the state-owned Halkbank case is obstruction of justice, Trump’s former national security Advisor John Bolton told U.S. news outlet ABC News.
Trump told to Erdoğan he would get his people involved in the Halkbank case to "take care "of the matter, Bolton said, according to excerpts from an exclusive ABC News interview aired on Sunday.
The interview arrived a day after Trump fired the top federal prosecutor of the case involving Turkey’s state lender Halkank, which is accused of laundering up to $20 billion on behalf of Iranian entities to help them break U.S.-imposed sanctions, bank fraud charges, and concealing the nature of these illicit transactions from U.S. officials.
Bolton has made headlines over his new tell-all book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,’’ which details the relationship between the U.S. and other word leaders, including Erdoğan.
Bolton wrote in the book that Trump had promised Erdoğan he would oust prosecutors investigating Halkbank.
Below are excerpts from the Bolton interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz pertaining to Turkey:
RADDATZ: ... Bob Gates wrote that President Obama, his decision making, was based on domestic political concerns as well. But you do seem to be going much further here, writing, "It's the only thing that Trump couldn't tell the difference between his personal interests and the country's interests."
BOLTON: Well, this is a very serious aspect of the national security policy of the Trump administration. The president over and over again seemed to think that a good personal relationship with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, the ayatollahs, Erdogan of Turkey, was equivalent to a good relationship between the United States and their respective countries.
Again, there's absolutely no doubt that good personal relations between world leaders, between counterparts, foreign secretaries, defense ministers, that kind of thing, it's all a positive. But nobody should misunderstand that a personal relationship is somehow equivalent to better relations between the two nations.
And on any number of occasions, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and others would say things like, "Look, you pursue the interests of the United States. We pursue the interests of our countries." I had no doubt they knew what that meant. I'm not sure that Donald Trump did.
RADDATZ: Describe to me, sum up Donald Trump's foreign policy.
BOLTON: Well, I don't think you can do that. I don't think there is a policy. My point is that policy is derived from careful thinking, analysis, building up evidence, the critical strategic task of matching resources with priorities. He just doesn't do that.
So commentators on the outside write about his strategic doctrines. And there are certainly decisions you can point to. There's a decision, there's a decision, there's another decision. And I give these commentators great credit for tryin' to find coherence where there is none.
That's not how decision-making proceeds in the Trump administration. And it's one reason why there seems to be a lot of zigging and zagging. There is a lot of zigging and zagging, sometimes during the same meeting, sometimes during the same day. And the rest of the bureaucracy tried to function in the way it understands of marching step by step toward an objective. But it was very, very hard to do.
RADDATZ: And that brings us to his briefings. What were his briefings like? Was he reading his briefings? How often did he get intelligence briefings?
BOLTON: Well, my experience was he very rarely read much. The intelligence briefings took place perhaps once or twice a week.
RADDATZ: Is that unusual?
BOLTON: It's very unusual. They should take place every day. The president should read extensively the material he's given. It's not clear to me that he read much of anything. I think too many people attended the briefings. There were perhaps eight, ten people in the room most times.
RADDATZ: Let's move to Vladimir Putin. How would you describe Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin?
BOLTON: I think Putin thinks he can play him like a fiddle. I think Putin is smart, tough. He plays a bad hand extremely well. And I think he sees that he's not faced with a serious adversary here. And he works on him, and he works on him, and he works on him... I don't think he's worried about Donald Trump.
RADDATZ: You say in in the book that Putin knew just how to play Trump, like comparing Hillary Clinton to the U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, or saying falsely that Nicolás Maduro had big rallies. You're saying that worked on the president?
BOLTON: Yeah. I think-- I think many of these foreign leaders -- mastered the art of ringing his bells. And some were better at it than others. Chancellor [Angela] Merkel of Germany had no success. I don't think she tried. I think she just tried to say what her position was, like a normal leader would do, and expect a response. Didn't get it. But the dictators seem to be better at it than the leaders of the democracy. And I just hope that pattern is not gonna persist if he's reelected.
RADDATZ: You say the term, "He was marked by some of those leaders."
BOLTON: I think they knew exactly what they were looking at far better than some people here in the United States. And they pursue their objectives. And this -- this is, in my view, the only way you can pursue a successful policy, is persistently -- with the eye on your ultimate objective, and taking Trump apart piece by piece by piece -- which I'm afraid too often was the case.
RADDATZ: And I have to ask you again, did you tell him at any time about what you saw with these leaders, the things you're now telling the world?
BOLTON: Well, I certainly tried to. I said at one point, I tell this story in the book, about a question with -- whether there would be another meeting with Kim Jong Un at one point. And I finally said -- he wanted the meeting. He wanted another meeting. And I finally said, "Mr. President, he's the dictator of a rat shit little country that doesn't deserve a meeting with you."
The president's response to that was, "You know, you have a lot of hostility. Of course, I have more hostility. But you have a lot of hostility." I normally didn't resort to that kind of approach with the president. I tried to do it in more even-handed language. But there are times when he just didn't seem to wanna listen to it.
RADDATZ: OK. I want to go back over a couple of things. You say that President Putin plays Donald Trump like a fiddle. What does he do? How does he do it? What should Americans think of that?
BOLTON: President Putin prepares very comprehensively for meetings. He knows the people he's talking to. He thinks about what he wants to say. He thinks about the points he wants to accomplish. And I think he looks at somebody like Donald Trump and says to himself -- as an old KGB officer, "How am I gonna get him to the place I want him to be?"
I think that's a level of preparation, of thoroughness -- of -- pre-planning that just would not register with Donald Trump. That's not to say Putin succeeds all the time. But he has a plan and he pursues it. And I can just see the smirk when he knows he's got him following his line. It's almost transparent.
RADDATZ: Donald Trump, as we say, sees himself as a dealmaker. But Vladimir Putin says he's easily manipulated. What happened to the dealmaker in those situations?
BOLTON: Well, the president may well be a superb dealmaker when it comes to Manhattan real estate. Dealing with Syria, dealing with arms limitation treaties on strategic weapons dealing in many, many other international security issues are things far removed from his life experience.
Presidents don't come to the office -- no president does, knowing everything. So it's no wrap on anybody to say, "Well, they don't know about strategic arms limitations talks." But when you're dealing with somebody like Putin, who has made his life understanding Russia's strategic position in the world-- against Donald Trump, who doesn't enjoy reading about these issues or learning about them -- it's a very difficult position for America to be in, notwithstanding our objective superiority over the Russians in all these areas.
RADDATZ: And I wanna go back to other examples you say outside of Ukraine and things that raised red flags for you. One of them, Halkbank, which is Turkey's most powerful state run bank. They were under investigation and what happened?
BOLTON: Well, there were any number of conversations between the president and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey on the subject of Halkbank. And what Erdogan 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.
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 Erdogan 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.
RADDATZ: And do you see that as criminal? Do you see that as high crimes and misdemeanor?
BOLTON: I don't think I know enough about all the circumstances, but 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 Erdogan 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.
Click here for the full script of the ABC interview.