Turkey exerts strong influence on Trump administration

U.S President Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have a lot in common, from political background to temperament.

Both came to power against what they saw as an array of enemies, including political and media establishments that did not want to see them succeed. Each governs with their own brand of “us against them” populism, casting an array of global actors and unaccountable bureaucrats as foes biased against them and by extension their voters.  

But beyond their kindred spirits, there may be more that allows Erdoğan to influence Trump seemingly like no other leader.

Since Trump was elected in 2016, Turkey has managed to dodge retaliation for a number of its actions. Turkish companies have been implicated in sanctions-evasion schemes related to Iran and Venezuela, while Ankara has moved ahead with acquiring S-400 air defence missiles from Russia, knowingly in violation of U.S. sanctions. The most high profile concession has been the twice announced and twice suspended withdrawal of U.S forces from northern Syria where they have served alongside a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers a terrorist organisation. 

But no matter how boldly these acts have been or how loud the criticism, Trump has been reluctant to thwart Erdoğan, and has instead repeatedly defended or praised the Turkish president.

While none of these moves seem to benefit U.S. policy, observers of Trump's administration frequently raise suspicions that they serve Trump's political or personal ends.

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The risk of conflicts of interest related to Turkey has been present since the start of Trump’s administration. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, even suggested the U.S. president was influenced by personal interests in Turkey following Trump’s latest Syria withdrawal. 

Turkey has long been in Trump’s orbit. In 2012, a Trump Tower was built in Istanbul and Trump’s daughter Ivanka personally thanked Erdoğan on Twitter for attending the ceremony. The building was assembled with the help of Turkish businessmen close to Erdoğan, including Emrullah Turanlı, chairman of Taşyapı Group, who would provide the construction permit later to another Erdoğan friend, real-estate and media tycoon Aydın Doğan.

The connections go beyond Trump Tower. Much of Trump-branded furniture is sourced from Durya International, a well-connected Turkish interior design firm that boasts of furnishing Trump properties across the United States, as well as offices in Turkey belonging to Turkey’s Presidency and other ministries. As part of the licensing deals and the furnishings, a financial disclosure released ahead of Trump’s inauguration estimated the Trump Organization collects about $11 million from these Turkish operations. 

Before and after winning the 2016 election, neither Trump, nor his Turkish contacts were shy about this relationship.

“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said in a radio interview in 2015. 

His partners were not shy either. Doruk Yorgancıoğlu, head of Dorya International, boasted: “My business partner is president of the United States”, and Turanlı of Taşyapı Group posted a photo of himself on Instagram in March 2017 meeting Trump while attending a Florida fundraiser alongside other Republican Party leaders.

The most significant of Trump’s Turkish business partners is Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, son-in-law of Doğan. Yalçındağ was reportedly with Trump when was announced as the next president. The Turkish Embassy in Washington then quickly reached out to Yalçındağ as a conduit to the new administration.

Yalçındağ would later be named head of the Turkey-U.S Business Council (TAIK) by Erdoğan, a role in no small part secured because of his ties to the Trump family. Other prominent Turks have also taken up positions Washington, including Rümeysa Kalın Karabulut, daughter of Erdoğan’s communications director Ibrahim Kalın, at Saltzman & Evinch. This law firm has been accused of spying for Turkey inside the United States and is led by Günay Evinch, who has been involved with advocating for the Turkish governments’ interests in Washington for decades and is known to be not ideologically tied to the current Erdoğan government. 

Turkey’s government has also spent lavishly at Trump’s Washington properties since his inauguration. Turkish Airlines hosted an event at the Trump National Golf Club in 2017 and TAIK, under former head Ekim Alptekin and current chief Yalçındağ, has hosted its annual conferences at Trump International Hotel both times since Trump became the president. It is a popular spot for many foreign representatives looking to curry favour with the administration.

Yalçındağ also happened to be at the right place at the right time again when he was appointed the board chairman of the Turkish subsidiary of Yandex, a Russian version of Google, in 2012. Yalçındağ is reported to also have close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s technology tsar Arkadiy Volozh, the billionaire founder and CEO of Yandex. 

Trump is not the only one in his administration with questionable Turkish interests. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have all been questioned about similar connections.   

Flynn, while serving as an adviser to Trump in 2016, penned an op-ed that lambasted U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen as “Turkey’s Osama Bin Laden” and urged support for Ankara’s attempts to have the man it blames for the 2016 failed coup attempt extradited from the United States.

Later Flynn, alongside his son and businessman Bijan Rafiekian, were investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors for failing to register as foreign lobbyists as well as a fantastical plot to kidnap Gülen from his Pennsylvania home. 

Flynn’s client Alptekin, a former head of TAIK and still a member of its executive board, is an Erdoğan ally and was indicted for his role in the saga. Flynn was not charged. 

Alptekin, who gave Flynn a $600,000 lobbying deal just before Trump picked him to be national security adviser, has business ties to Russia and Putin, court records show. The Russian president personally approved a loan to a company in which Alptekin had a stake.

Giuliani was tapped to join the legal team of Reza Zarrab, a Trump Towers resident who was indicted for his role in an Iran sanctions-evasion scheme involving Turkish state-run Halkbank. Erdoğan called the case part of an international coup and pushed for its dismissal.

Giuliani filed an affidavit in the case that said he had been retained to attempt to resolve the case “as part of some agreement between the United States and Turkey that will promote the national security interests of the United States and redound to the benefit of Mr. Zarrab”. What Giuliani did not reveal was that he had met Erdoğan a month before and was serving as a senior adviser at Greenburg Traurig, a lobbying firm contracted by Turkey. Both he and the firm deny any influence from its lobbying practice on Giuliani’s involvement with the case. 

But Giuliani’s efforts did not stop with Zarrab. A former Trump official told the Washington Post that Giuliani brought up Gülen so many times that other aides worried he was acting on Turkey’s behalf. This came while Giuliani was serving as Trump’s personal attorney.

Kushner’s ties to Turkey have not involved the same legal murkiness as the others’, but NBC reported that Mueller’s investigators reached out to individuals in Turkey in 2017 to determine whether Kushner could be unduly influenced.

Kushner also maintains a friendship with both Mehmet Yalçındağ and Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and treasury and finance minister. Erdoğan once even predicted that their relationship would be what set U.S-Turkey ties “back on track”.

The New York Times reported that Albayrak and Yalçındağ were attending the TAIK conference at Trump’s hotel when Kushner summoned Albayrak to the White House. Albayrak was then allowed to make his case to Trump directly on not sanctioning Turkey over its S-400 purchase. At the same time, Yalçındağ attended meetings at the State Department and Congress where he did the same and encouraged approval of a Turkish incursion into northern Syria. 

In the end, Turkey has still not faced U.S sanctions for buying Russian S-400 missiles and Trump green lighted Erdoğan’s Syria operation in October. It appears that Erdoğan gained a lot from this special relationship and Trump is also able to protect his financial interests and popularity in Turkey. Whether there are any other business deals between the families is so far unclear.

 

© Ahval English

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