TAIK misrepresents lobbyists as U.S.-Turkey experts at election event

The Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK) on Thursday hosted a special programme devoted to understanding the presidential election in the United States and U.S.-Turkish relations. Joining host Cüneyt Özdemir was a group of former U.S. congressmen and political operatives, who now work for the public relations powerhouse, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States, Mercury Public Affairs, along with some other journalists and commentators.

What the organisers of the event left out when introducing their guests from the United States was that Mercury is a registered lobbyist for TAIK and until recently worked for Turkey’s embassy in Washington D.C.

Among those invited included former senator David Vitter (R-LA), former congressman Toby Moffett (D-CT), and former congressman Vin Weber (R-MN) to discuss the election’s outcome. Former Trump aide Bryan Lanza was also in attendance.

Two of those men were introduced as partners at Mercury while the remaining guests, Vitter and Moffett, were simply referred to as a former senator and congressman. 

Vitter, who served as a senator from Louisiana until declining to seek re-election in 2016, is a registered foreign agent of TAIK. Among his activities on its behalf included trying to secure a natural gas deal between a Louisiana gas company and Turkey as well as assisting the organisation in securing a meeting with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). 

Lanza, who worked on President Trump’s 2016 campaign, registered as a TAIK lobbyist since 2018. Moffett last month was named Mercury’s co-chairman

However, neither Özdemir nor Turkish media reports covering this event disclosed that either Mercury or its representatives present served as TAIK lobbyists. 

A spokeswoman for Mercury did not return a request to comment on whether they would like to correct the record. 

In one article in Haberler, the author identified several of their guests as only former members of Congress without disclosing their lobbyist status. State-run Anadolu Agency similarly declined to include these affiliations. 

For years, Turkey has spent millions on K-Street lobbyists, many who are former members of Congress, to make up for the cold shoulder its official representatives receive. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Turkey has spent close to $30 million through government and non-governmental sources over the course of the Trump administration.

(Center for Responsive Politics) 

Since 2013, Mercury has served as a lobbyist for Turkish interests in the United States including for the embassy in D.C. In a revision filed last August, Mercury reported that its working relationship with TAIK “may be supervised or directed by” Turkish government representatives and “may inure to their benefit”.

Last month, Mercury quietly severed its relationship with Turkey’s Washington embassy following pressure from California activists opposed to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. TAIK did not return a request for comment on whether its relationship with Mercury was ongoing after this move, but the presence of its lobbyists at Thursday’s event suggests the relationship is ongoing.

The TAIK event focused on the impact a Joe Biden presidency would have on United States-Turkey relations after the former vice president is sworn in January. Moffett told host Özdemir that Turkey “is very important” and “it is not a country one can afford to not have strong relations with and Biden knows this well.”

Biden has already declared positions against Ankara over Syria, the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, and in the eastern Mediterranean. He also referred to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an “autocrat” and expressed a willingness to assist his opposition in unseating him during the presidential campaign season. 

Özdemir, who did not even mention Mercury while presenting Moffett as a speaker, then asked a question of TAIK’s chairman Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ regarding his interactions with Biden. “I think you know him well, right?”

Yalçındağ encountered then-Vice President Biden when he visited Ankara in the aftermath of the 2016’s failed coup attempt. At the time, Biden praised the employees of CNN Türk for resistance during the coup and asked Yalçındağ, then an executive at Doğan Media Group, to “convey my best wishes to all your employees.”

This event in some ways had echoes of the previous strategy of leveraging existing relationships as Turkey with Yalcindag to reach a new administration or other levers of influence in Washington.

Part of why Yalçındağ was believed to be selected to head TAIK, which is indirectly connected with the Turkish government, had to do with his relationship with the Trumps. In 2008, Yalçındağ’s father-in-law Aydın Doğan assisted the Trumps with the Trump Tower Istanbul project which continues to generate revenue for the Trump Organization.

According to the New York Times, Yalçındağ also appealed to the President to drop the case against the state-owned Halkbank for violating Iran sanctions. Yalçındağ, during the programme, said he never talked to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump or adviser to Trump also happens to be the son-in-law Jared Kushner since they have been in White House.

Yalçındağ replaced former TAIK President Ekim Alptekin in 2018. Alptekin was appointed to the presidency in 2014 by the Turkish government controlled parliamentary commission. 

Alptekin was known in Washington, with his aggressive tactics, several long time lobbyists of the Turkish government confirmed to Ahval. Alptekin hired retired Lt. General Michael Flynn in summer of 2016 and hid his lobbying ties with him until it was uncovered by the Daily Caller. 

Alptekin subsequently became entangled in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and was indicted before fleeing the United States as a fugitive.

Özdemir, at the end of the programme proudly admitted that he ‘’found himself asking questions to people that he never heard or saw on Turkish media before.’’