The Justice Department suspects Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank has helped the Iranian regime to circumvent US sanctions on a large scale. If the bank is found guilty in the New York federal district court, observers say the bank could face a fine of up to $ 20 billion or expulsion from the banking system SWIFT international.
In an earlier trial, a witness testified that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was involved in the alleged violation of the sanctions. The Turkish government did not respond to DER SPIEGEL’s request for comment. Halkbank declined to comment because of the ongoing anti-banking proceedings. Former US Attorney General William Barr was unable to be contacted with a statement.
John Bolton served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in the Department of Justice and State. He served as the US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. Donald Trump appointed him as national security adviser in April 2018, but he soon contradicted the president and leaving government in September 2019.
MIRROR: Mr. Bolton, how important was Halkbank’s topic in Erdoan’s conversations with Donald Trump?
John Bolton: Erdoğan is completely focused on getting Halkbank out of the investigation and the possibility of prosecution that the bank has had for a long time. He has repeatedly raised this issue with Trump. It would be a rare face-to-face or over the phone conversation it doesn’t show up. Erdoğan repeatedly said that the investigation was unjustified and should be resolved or dismissed.
MIRROR: What is the deal that the Turkish leadership is trying to reach?
Bolton: They want to bring the vice president of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, back from the United States. He was convicted by a federal court in New York for his role in plotting to violate US sanctions against Iran. US law makes it possible that you can return a prisoner to a foreign prison on the assumption that they serve the same sentence on the same terms. It is a fairly common practice. They also want the case to be dismissed or the US attorney in New York agrees to settle so that Halkbank will not have to admit wrongdoing. That’s the bottom line in most settlements where prosecutors think they have a very strong case.
MIRROR: Why so?
Bolton: When prosecutors believe they can prove unlawful behavior, they firmly accept, but then address any potential penalties that the bank will incur. That is clearly a major area of disagreement, because if a bank has admitted criminal activity, then the bank must disclose the activity. That makes it very difficult for them to make money and entails many other consequences.
MIRROR: Did Turkish representatives present any potential geopolitical implications of the incident?
Bolton: There’s not much discussion about that. Halkbank was accused of violating our Iran sanctions and then basically lying. I tried to explain to Trump that if it was an American company, we would prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law. Letting a foreign company receive lower treatment is not appropriate. The reality is that in America, the president, as the head of the executive branch, is responsible for both law enforcement and national security, and there are possible trade-offs. But this is not one of them.
MIRROR: How has Trump responded to Erdoğan’s efforts?
Bolton: He always seems to lean in favorably. I think part of the sales staff at work, always be sympathetic and like that. In any conversation I have had with him, Trump favors trying to find a way to solve the Halkbank banking problem and please Erdoğan. That was obviously difficult because what Erdoan wanted was, fundamentally, fairness. And our law enforcement agencies really, really don’t want to do that.
MIRROR: In your White House memoirs, you describe the meeting between Trump and Erdoğan at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires in late 2018. How did that meeting go?
Bolton: Erdoğan presented to Trump a summary prepared by a US law firm working on Halkbank’s behalf. I never really held it in my hand, but it seemed 30 or 40 pages long. Trump flipped the pages, went through it, didn’t read it because he turned the pages too quickly to read and said, “Yes, that sounds convincing to me.”
“It is part of his desire to grant special favors to authoritarian leaders.”
MIRROR: What drives Trump in all of this? There is some speculation that it could be in his business interests in Turkey.
Bolton: People are always asking me to give them an example of how Trump advocates his business interests in dealing with international leaders. And I have not seen it. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t, didn’t have any meetings that I don’t know. But in this case, I see no evidence of any kind of exchange that could be in his business interests. It seems to me that Trump wants to impress Erdoğan. It was part of his desire to give special support to authoritarian leaders. He is trying to show Erdoğan that he will help him, perhaps to ask for a personal favor in return someday in the future.
MIRROR: How would you describe the relationship between Trump and Erdoğan in general?
Bolton: When I arrived in the White House in April 2018, American Pastor Andrew Brunson was still being held in Turkey. The main focus in the US-Turkey relationship at the time was to release him, which we were finally able to do. During that time, relations between Erdoğan and Trump were not good. Sanctions were put in place, currency restrictions were in place, we worked very hard to release Brunson. When that happened, the light switch went on and it became a very good personal relationship between the two. To me, it was proof of the transactional nature of Trump’s approach to life: He could be someone’s enemy, and in seconds it could turn into a personal relationship. very close.
MIRROR: How did the Trump Administration then get involved in the prosecution of Halkbank?
Bolton: One of the things Trump said to Erdoğan in Buenos Aires was, “When I get my men in, we settle.” Basically, he meant Bill Barr, who would be identified as Attorney General. When he arrived, the Halkbank negotiations were routed to Barr. I think, in the end, because Halkbank believed they had direct lines to the Oval Office, they were not willing to negotiate with the Justice Department at all, and the ministry decided to proceed with prosecution.
MIRROR: Why did a Halkbank deal eventually fail?
Bolton: Prosecutors in New York’s Southern District want to admit liability. They do not think that Halkbank deserves a lot of time exemptions because they have not cooperated with the investigation.
MIRROR: Why did Trump in the end refuse to participate any more?
Bolton: I think Barr convinced him that he would take a serious look at what treatment for Halkbank would be suitable. Barr must at some point go to Trump and say, “Look, I tried to negotiate this and we couldn’t get something we found acceptable. We will have to continue to prosecute. ” Of course, at the time, Barr was in Trump’s favor, and Trump probably didn’t want to push him any more.
MIRROR: What should we expect with the upcoming Halkbank?
Bolton: Basically, it’s in the hands of the Department of Justice and the courts. Maybe Erdoğan will try again with Biden. But according to the media, the two are not on good terms. It is also possible that financial enforcement institutions of other countries consider it. We have heard a lot about possible corruption in relation to Halkbank. If the bank is as lax to the laws of others as it is with our Iran sanctions, then others can also participate in a review of its behavior.
“I have no reason to think Biden will be involved.”
MIRROR: Is the Biden White House involved?
Bolton: I have no reason to think Biden will be involved. This is a fairly simple law enforcement issue. As a general recommendation, the best thing the president does is allow prosecution, unless there are some overarching national security interests, which I have never seen in this case.
MIRROR: Can future negotiations with Iran become such a national security issue?
Bolton: I think the administration is very interested in going back to the Iran nuclear deal so a lot could happen. But this case is one or two steps removed from the agreement. I would be surprised if anything changes at this point.
MIRROR: What about the prosecutors in New York’s Southern District? They seem, at least at one point, to be able to accept some sort of agreement on the condition that Halkbank has admitted wrongdoing. Will it still be on the table?
Bolton: Generally, settlement can happen until its conclusion, even when the case is being heard. But I don’t know anything at this point that would divert prosecutors from just running the trial and trying to win.