"Turkish gov't takes a page from the Gulenist playbook in Washington lobbying" - 3

This is the third piece in a series on Turkish government and Turkish-American lobbying in the United States. In the first two pieces, I discussed how both the Turkish government and its former ally turned enemy, the Gulen Movement, are courting the Trump administration, and particularly Vice President Mike Pence, through Trump-connected lobbyists.

In 2017, both sides spent considerable sums on lobbying. The Gulen-connected Alliance for Shared Values spent at least $310,500 on three lobbying firms. Unsurprisingly, the Turkish government outspent their rivals, directly shelling out at least $4.4 million. Turkish government ministries spent an additional $348,000. Twenty-thousand of that was spent by Arsay Media, which is funded in part by a “grant” from the Turkish Ministry of the Economy according to its website, to arrange a press trip for prominent media outlets to Turkey. Halkbank, the Turkish state-owned bank that was the subject of a Iran sanctions violation case here in the US, spent $531,250.

The Turkish government also spent an unknown amount to hire Andrew C. Hruska of the law firm King and Spalding, “to prepare and present a proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice for cooperation between the governments of the United States and Turkey regarding the handling of a U.S. legal matter.” Interestingly, King and Spalding also represent the Gulen-movement connect Bank Asya in 2013. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Halkbank case most likely “legal matter” Hruska was hired to work on. In another connection between Turkey and the current US administration, Trump supporter, lawyer, and former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, was hired by the central defendant in the case, Reza Zarrab.

An even stranger expenditure came from a shadowy group based in Istanbul called the Knowledge Economy Association (KEA), which paid the Monte Advisory Group $100,000 for one and a half months of work. According the filing “sole and managing member” of the Monte Advisory Group is Douglas Baker the son of James Baker. The elder Baker held a number of powerful positions in late 20th century Republican White Houses, including serving as Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush. According a Daily Beast investigation last year, there is little indication that either the Knowledge Economy Association or the Monte Advisory Group exist, besides the FARA filings outlining their business relationship. The filing indicates that at least one member of the KEA was a representative of the Turkish government. According to the Daily Beast, the founding president of the KEA, Davut Kavranoğlu, became scientific advisor to Turkey’s President after leaving the KEA. Monte also liaised with the incoming Trump administration, according to the Daily Beast, though the contract was signed prior to the election.

In 2018, the Turkish government is poised to spend at least $4.2 million on lobbying, a figure that does not include the King and Spalding contract, which is still in effect, or social media fee from one of the firms it hired, Mercury Public Affairs. The Turkish-American Business Council (TAIK) also paid Mercury $1,290.00. Mercury has been probed by special counsel Robert Mueller for failing to register as a foreign agent after being hired by Paul Manafort to lobby for a group with ties to the Ukrainian President. In addition, the Turkish Exporters Association has signed a contract with the ad and consultancy group Ketchum for an unknown amount. Contrast these figures with the lobbying expenditures of the Gulen-connected Washington Diplomacy Group, who in the first quarter of this year paid lobbyists less than $20,000

To see a full accounting of Turkish government and Gulenist lobbying expenditures in 2017 and projected for 2018, click here.

The multi-million dollar question is whether all these expenditures have bought either the Turkish government or the Gulen movement the policy results they have been seeking. Analysts and sources with experience dealing with both Turkish and Gulenist lobbyists have mixed opinions.

The Turkish government appears to making some small inroads, likely thanks to its much improved strategy. Selim Sazak, analyst and doctoral candidate at Brown University, told Ahval that after the missteps with Michael Flynn, Turkey has significantly improved its lobbying strategy and choice of partners. He cites the fact that charges were dropped against a number of the Turkish President’s bodyguards, who were charged with assaulting protesters in Sheridan Circle in Washington, DC during President Erdogan’s visit last year, as evidence that Turkey has some clout with this administration.

Robert Amsterdam, who has been engaged by Turkey to specifically lobby against the reach of the Gulen Movement in the United States told Ahval that “certainly Turkey feels that under Obama that they were never heard,” but that parts of the current administration he could not name are more receptive to his overtures.

Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has also noted that the Turkish government’s talking points have made inroads, particularly after the election on June 24. President Erdogan was reelected and his party, the AKP, and their allies, the MHP, won a combined majority in parliament in a vote that was held under conditions that were neither free nor fair. However, some political insiders and analysts who are not Turkey specialists have continued to toot the elections as democratic. Cook attributes this to Turkey taking a page from the Gulenist playbook. “It strikes me that the Turkish government’s effort to influence the debate in Washington is similar to how the Gulen movement went about it,” Cook told Avhal.  “Instead of Hizmet-related groups with innocuous sounding names, however, you have the Turkish Heritage Organization, Turkish American National Steering Committee, MUSIAD and others who cultivate elites and in the process advance the Turkish government’s message. Turkey watchers knew who the Gulen groups were and they know who the government-affiliated groups are, but people who do not follow Turkey might be fooled into believing that they are actually dealing with independent organizations.”

Vice President Pence, a major target of Turkey lobbying from all sides, may also be open to the point of view of the Turkish government on certain issues, even if the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson looms large. Brunson lived and presided over a congregation in the Turkish city of Izmir for decades. After the coup attempt, he was accused of being a member of the Gulen Movement and has been imprisoned for more than a year and a half. Pence, like Brunson, is a devoted Evangelical Christian and Pence has publicly advocated for Brunson’s release.

Amanda Sloat, senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, believes that Brunson’s continued imprisonment doesn’t preclude the possibility of Pence continuing to listen to and work with the Turkish government. “While there is certainly frustration about the continued imprisonment of Brunson - which Pence and Trump have raised directly with Erdogan and senior Turkish officials, I believe there is also recognition of other interests with Turkey on which the US must continue to engage,” Dr. Sloat told Ahval.

On the other hand, Turkey has suffered some big losses in the past year and a half. The media trip facilitated through Arsay Media was a disaster, as instead of getting a sit down with President Erdogan as promised, journalists were subjected to a presentation by the famously unhinged (now former) mayor of Ankara. ATC/TAIK’s conference last year was apparently an awkward affair, as its then president insisted in addressing his involvement in the Flynn scandal. This year’s conference was delayed six months as TAIK was concerned about possible low attendance and the fact that US defence contractors are refraining from seeking new investments in Turkey.

In the Halkbank sanctions evasion case, Reza Zarrab’s testified that the Turkish government, including President Erdogan, approved the scheme to exchange gold for Iranian energy products. His testimony secured Halkbank manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla a sentence of 32 months in jail and more indictments against others involved in the scheme could be forthcoming. It is also likely that Halkbank will face some of the largest fines ever levied against a foreign bank by the United States.

An analyst, who is familiar with the Congressional Turkey Caucus, spoke to Ahval on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment by his employer. He told Ahval that staffers of the members of the Caucus feel that Turkey has basically given up countering the negative narratives surrounding its government, for example not bothering to try to counter the extremely negative reputation it earned in many circles after the assault on protestors by members of Erdogan’s entourage. He also noted that Congress is moving toward sanctions on Turkey due to a number of human rights issues.

Just last week the Senate voted in favor of blocking the transfer of 100 F-35 jets that Turkey had purchased from Lockheed Martin. Aaron Stein, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Ahval that Turkey has not been able to recover its reputation. “Congress is angry about the imprisonment of Americans and Brunson has become a very serious issue on the Hill. Honestly, the shift in congressional mood started right after the fight at Sheridan Circle. The fight interjected Turkish domestic politics into the backyard of the American Congress and people reacted very, very negatively,” Stein told Ahval.

It is also unlikely that the Turkish government will achieve one of its primary goals, the extradition of the Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Gulen Movement who currently lives in Pennsylvania. Joshua Hendrick, a professor at Loyola University in Maryland and an expert on the Gulen Movement, told Ahval that he doesn’t see the US ever extraditing Gulen. “The burden of proof for extradition treaties is tremendously high, and the proof [of his involvement in the 2016 coup attempt] is still circumstantial.” Other respected analysts of Turkey and U.S. officials briefed on the situation agree with this conclusion.

The next part in this series will examine how effective the Gulenist Lobby has been in countering the Turkish government narrative.

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