For months, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly pressured President Donald Trump and his administration not to take action against its country’s second-largest state-owned bank, Halkbank. And reports indicated that Trump was on board, having asked former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to convince the Justice Department to drop its investigation of the bank, and telling Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr to work with Erdogan on the matter. Treasury has acknowledged that the issue of Halkbank came up during meetings Mnuchin had with Turkish officials.
But besides Trump, the bank also had the help of Ballard Partners, the fast-growing influential lobbying shop headed by Trump friend Brian Ballard, who had served as vice chair of the president’s inauguration. There was also Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who in 2016 and 2017 had pushed for the release of a jailed client suspected of involvement in Halkbank’s multibillion-dollar effort to skirt U.S. sanctions on Iran. A CNN report in February 2020 — four months after the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York charged Halkbank with fraud and money laundering — said that Barr had “personally spearheaded” an attempt in 2019 to negotiate a settlement and avoid an indictment for the bank.
The timing of the October 2019 charges, when the president was being roundly criticized for having allowed the Turkish incursion into Syria, raised questions about how the investigation and indictment were handled. And news of Barr’s reported involvement, coming on the heels of his stunning intervention in the sentencing recommendations for Trump ally Roger Stone, was yet another troubling example of the president’s politicization of the Justice Department. American Oversight is seeking records that could shed light on whether and to what extent the administration interfered in a criminal case in the service of external influences or the president’s personal interests.