Turkey hedging its bets ahead of the U.S. presidential election

As Americans move closer to Tuesday, when they will elect the person, who will serve as their president for the next four years, questions are looming on foreign influence into their politics.

This election year has been beset by contentious announcements of attempts of interference from abroad. The actors most suspected of actively working to undermine voters’ confidence in the process are the bevy of the U.S’ stated adversaries; China, Russia and Iran.

These efforts have consisted of hacking voting infrastructure and churning out disinformation to slander or disillusion supporters of President Donald Trump or his challenger former Vice President Joe Biden. All of this echoed the tactics chosen by Russia’s hackers and trolls in November 2016 in support of then candidate Trump. 

However, another player from 2016 is often forgotten in the retelling of foreign election interference that year:Turkey. 

President Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn worked as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey even as he campaigned alongside Trump. It was later revealed that Flynn had received money from a Turkish businessman, Ekim Alpetkin, to pen an op-ed against exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, and was involved in a plot to kidnap him for Ankara. 

Gülen, who lives in exile in a Pennsylvania compound, is an enemy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and is alleged to have been involved in the failed coup attempt of July 2016.  For years, U.S authorities have refused to extradite Gülen, souring relations and feeding a conspiratorial belief that Washington was involved in the coup plot. 

Flynn would plead guilty to lying to federal agents during the Mueller probe while several of his associates involved in the kidnapping plot were charged for this crime. Alptekin was indicted as well but escaped to Turkey, where he lives today, out of reach of U.S law enforcement. 

Whereas Russia and others primarily rely on acting in cyberspace, Turkey has relied on a cadre of well-paid, well-connected lobbyists to push its position in Washington. 

These firms are registered foreign agents with the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ), as required under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) that regulates foreign lobbying. Turkey’s cultivation of figures connected to Trump and its patronage of Trump-owned properties in particular has been documented in the past.

But there is another side of Turkish influence campaigns that, at times, has fallen into legally questionable territory. These combine delivering pro-government content and at times have involved characters close to President Erdogan, as well as his family.    

Among the organizations involved are the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) think tank and the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), both legally registered 501(c)3 non-profits. Also included is the advocacy group known as the Turkish-American National Steering Committee (TASC). 

Despite maintaining a paper trail and local membership, there has been a lingering cloud of suspicion that these Turkish-American entities are more closely aligned to Ankara than meets the eye. 

SETA D.C is a branch of an Ankara-connected counterpart that has connections to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and has been accused of being a mouthpiece for pro-government viewpoints with the veneer of independence. 

Similarly, the THO has been accused similarly of serving as a U.S-based platform for pro-AKP speakers and government ministers. THO lists several of Turkey’s largest companies as donors and past officials were revealed to be in contact with high-ranking Turkish officials. 

THO on its website maintains that it is a nonpartisan organization that promotes dialogue on U.S-Turkey relations.

In a series of  leaked emails allegedly from the inbox of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s now Finance Minister and Erdoğan’s son in law, THO’s former president Halil Danışmaz shared a Power Point presentation that openly presented a plan for evading U.S lobbying laws to move money to politicians they favoured. 

“With this type of structure, funding regulations and tax barriers that limit lobbying activities in the U.S. will be overcome,” read one part of the presentation according to the Daily Caller. 

According to another email from a member of TASC, named Ibrahim Uyar, to Albayrak, he and Danışmaz were interviewed by FBI agents in September 2016. The agents accused both men of seeking to interfere in U.S politics on behalf of Turkey. 

Danışmaz left his post at THO the next year and returned to Turkey following the FBI investigation. He was replaced by journalist Ali Çınar, who himself was flagged for suspicion by the campaign staff of Hillary Clinton in 2016 as part of “Erdogan’s crew”for reasons that were not specified.

Çınar, on his personal website, claims he has been a journalist for almost two decades at American-Turkish and Turkish newspapers, and maintains membership in multiple press associations as well as hard passes at the White House and State Department which are updated often. 

Çınar frequently connects to Turkish television channels to explain Turkish-U.S. relations as a journalist  from White House premises or other federal facilities while also heading one of the most influential pro-Turkish NGOs in Washington.

When contacted, Çınar maintains that he separates his two jobs and that they do not conflict with each other. 

Other Turkish-American organizations were similarly accused of trying to covertly funnel money to candidates deemed favourable to Turkey. 

Former officials involved with the American-Turkish Council (ATC) described to Ahval how members of the United States-Turkey Business Council (TAIK) also were encouraged to donate to members of Congress to help halt recognition of the Armenian Genocide.  

The official allegedly responsible for this scheme was Alpetkin, who was then serving as head of TAIK. 

Other members of the Turkish elite have been identified as working with U.S-based groups, some with high-power connections. 

A member of Erdoğan’s family serves on the board of TASC. Halil Mutlu, the president’s cousin, previously served as head of the New York-based Türken Foundation, during which he even posed with Vice President Mike Pence when he served as Governor of Indiana. 

Mutlu’s partner at TASC is Gunay Evinch, a lawyer at the law firm Saltzman & Evinch in Washington, who has been connected to Turkish interests. 

Evinch’s law firm was later retained by the Turkish Embassy to represent Erdoğan’s bodyguards, who were indicted by a D.C court for attacking protestors during a brawl outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in 2017. Evinch himself was on the scene when he told a local news network that the anti-Erdogan crowd was the first to attack the president’s supporters.

As of June 2020, Evinch and his firm are registered as foreign agents of Turkey even as he serves on the board of TASC.  In documents submitted to DOJ, the firm lists work with the Turkish Embassy going back over a decade. 

There are indications that Turkey recognizes Trump’s weakness in the current state of the race and may want to hedge its bets. A SETA published an article that suggested there was room for a reset in Turkish-American relations under a Biden administration. To this end, it posited that compartmentalizing disagreements could be one means of reinvigorating bilateral relations. 

A member of THO’s senior team has also found a place on Biden’s campaign. Elvir Klempic, a Bosnian-American who serves as the campaign’s National Affinity and Ethnic Engagement Director. Before this, Klempic was the executive director at THO. 

In an analysis in the Washington Examiner, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) described this move as a “jump from an organization that acts as a Turkish government proxy directly into the Biden campaign”. 

The results of the election may remain unclear for some time, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic complicating efforts to deliver early results. That being said, there is enough precedent to show Turkey, like many countries paying close attention to the U.S. election, is looking for the best way to prepare for either outcome on Nov. 3.