Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is calling on Attorney General William Barr to recuse himself from a federal case against a Turkish state-owned bank over concerns President Trump reportedly interfered in the investigation on behalf of Turkey’s president.
Turkey’s Halkbank is accused of transferring billions of dollars to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
The request by Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, was detailed in a four-page letter Monday and prompted by reports that Barr raised concerns with former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump was trying to grant personal favors for leaders in Turkey and China.
The alleged conversation between Barr and Bolton was first reported last month by The New York Times, which cited an unpublished book manuscript by Bolton.
“Recent reports indicate that you and former national security adviser John R. Bolton shared concerns that President Trump was granting personal favors to the autocratic leader of Turkey,” Wyden wrote in the letter. “In particular, reports indicate that President Trump promised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Trump would use his authority to halt any further enforcement actions against the bank, and that Trump consequently instructed you and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to interfere in the matter.”
Wyden gave a Barr a Feb. 18 deadline to provide information about his meetings with Trump and Turkish officials, including Erdoğan and his son-in-law and Turkey’s Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and whether there was interference in enforcing U.S. sanctions.
When reached for comment, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said The New York Times report “grossly mischaracterizes” the attorney general’s conversations with Bolton and that Barr never had any discussions of “personal favors” or “undue influence,” nor did he think the president’s communications with foreign leaders were “improper.”
Wyden’s letter is part of his ongoing effort to determine whether Trump and senior administration officials interfered in federal investigations against Halkbank.
The bank was indicted in the Southern District of New York on Oct. 15 on six counts, including fraud, money laundering and sanctions evasion for allegedly facilitating the transfer of approximately $20 billion to Iran in a complicated scheme of trading cash for gold and at the height of U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
Erdoğan and Albayrak are not named in the indictment but alluded to based on their government positions at the time and described as directing officials at Halkbank to continue the scheme to transfer funds to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
The announcement of the indictment was criticized as unnecessarily delayed since federal prosecutors had secured guilty verdicts months earlier against the deputy general manager of the bank and in 2018 against Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian gold dealer identified as masterminding the scheme.
The indictment was viewed as a rebuke of Turkey by the Trump administration after Ankara announced an incursion into northeastern Syria on Oct. 13 and against Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
Turkish officials have repeatedly raised the issue of the U.S. investigation into Halkbank over the three years federal investigators have pursued charges, yet it’s unclear to what extent the president and administration officials communicated with federal agencies over Turkey’s concerns.
In November, the Treasury Department confirmed to Wyden that the president directed multiple federal agencies, including the Justice Department, to look into whether Halkbank would be under threat of U.S. sanctions.
Treasury’s response backed up an earlier report that Trump in 2017 asked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help persuade the Justice Department to drop the charges against Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian gold-trader who was being defended by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Trump repeatedly boasts about his friendship with Erdogan, saying at a White House meeting in November that they have “been friends for a long time,” and that he is a “big fan” of the Turkish president.
Wyden also called on Barr to disclose any meetings he had with Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm hired by the Turkish government and that represented Halkbank until its federal indictment was announced in October.
The firm represented Trump before he became president, and its founder, Brian Ballard, is considered a top fundraiser and donor to the Trump campaign.
“These reports are part of a larger story highlighting President Trump’s efforts to accommodate the intense pressure campaign by the Turkish government to get investigations into Halkbank dropped, including a high-priced lobbying effort by Ballard Partners,” Wyden wrote.
James P. Rubin, head of international practice at Ballard Partners and a former Clinton administration official, told The Hill there was no contact on behalf of the firm’s lobbyists assigned to Halkbank, nor the firm as a whole, and the Justice Department.
“There was no such contact. Period. Full Stop,” Rubin said when reached for comment Tuesday.
“I can tell you that neither Robert Wexler [senior counselor for international affairs at Ballard Partners], Brian Ballard, nor myself — we’re the three individuals registered on behalf of Halkbank — had any contact, incidental or planned, whatsoever, with any official at the Justice Department. That was a redline that we would never cross and did never cross.”
Updated at 4:41 p.m.