Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff, said the quiet part out loud last week regarding the administration’s dealings with Ukraine.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he told reporters after one pointed out he’d just admitted to a quid pro quo when he explained the U.S. delivering military aid was contingent on investigations relevant to Trump’s political agenda. After the press conference concluded, Mulvaney attempted to walk back the comments by flatly denying he’d said what everyone heard (and recorded) him say hours earlier. Trump reportedly was not pleased, and the palace whisperers have been a-whispering about Mulvaney’s possible demise.
But several developments this week pulled back the curtain a bit further on what Mulvaney was talking about when he said the Trump administration makes moves like it did in Ukraine “all the time.” On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to hand over records of his contacts with Turkish officials as part of an inquiry into whether the Trump administration meddled in the U.S. criminal investigation into Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank. “It’s clear that the Trump administration has become a one-stop shop for foreign leaders looking to do shady business deals and engage in corruption,” Wyden wrote on Twitter. “This must end, and I won’t stop until I have answers for the American people.”
It's clear that the Trump administration has become a one stop shop for foreign leaders looking to do shady business deals and engage in corruption. This must end, and I won't stop until I have answers for the American people.
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) October 24, 2019
Wyden’s inquiry follows a Bloomberg report that Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in April that he would have Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr “handle” an ongoing investigation into Halkbank’s alleged fraud, money laundering, and plans to illegally disregard U.S. sanctions on Iran. Nothing happened until last week, when an undated indictment was unsealed just as Trump imposed economic sanctions on Turkey in response to their military incursion into northern Syria. As Bloomberg points out, the fact that the indictment was undated could mean it was deliberately withheld, at Trump’s direction, until it was convenient for charges to be filed.
Not unrelated is a Bloomberg report from earlier this month that Trump in 2017 tried to convince then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to team up with Rudy Giuliani to help put an end to the prosecution of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader and client of Giuliani’s who was at the center of Turkey’s efforts to work around sanctions on Iran. Trump reportedly “repeatedly” raised the issue with Tillerson, suggesting he strike a deal to set Zarrab loose in exchange for concessions from Turkey, including the return of an American pastor being held in Turkey. In one instance, Trump pressured Tillerson to do so in the Oval Office while accompanied by Giuliani and another lawyer. Giuliani had also been pressuring government officials on his own to get Zarrab released from custody. Meanwhile, Erdogan had been pressuring Trump regarding both Zarrab and Halkbank.
Trump’s breach of protocol in dealing with Turkey is remarkably similar to how he attempted to push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening investigations into Joe Biden and the 2016 election, right down to the involvement of Giuliani. “It’s just another example of the president trying to meddle in specific law enforcement actions, whether to help an ally or harm a rival,” Preet Bharara, whose office launched the investigation of Zarrab while he was a U.S. attorney in New York, told the Washington Post. “This incident, like the incidents involving Ukraine and China and others, should be looked at very carefully.”
Wyden apparently agrees.