Indictment at center of Trump-Erdoğan meeting
Following a series of largely unproductive and uninspiring phone calls, statements and meetings between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump over the past nine months, Thursday’s meeting between the two heads of state on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly comes at what is perhaps the most critical test of the limits of the Trump-Erdoğan relationship.
In addition to facing bilateral disagreements in Syria, as well as the upcoming independence referendum in Northern Iraq, the meeting comes on the heels of the indictment of former Economic Minister Zafer Çağlayan and former Halkbank general manager Süleyman Aslan for conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, connecting the two to the indictment of Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab.
Erdoğan has declared that the latter issue is at the top of his agenda during his meeting with Trump. He has labeled the case of Zarrab and Çağlayan as “totally political,” a plot aiming to bring down the Turkish state. His associates have claimed that the case is nothing more than an extension of previously crafted plots by the followers of U.S.-based Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen (Gülenists) to overthrow the Turkish government via a judicial coup.
From the American side, the U.S. Department of State spokesperson responded to these accusations, exclaiming that the Turkish government’s claims are “ridiculous.” As the investigation has been ongoing months before Cağlayan’s indictment, the prosecutor of the southern district of New York who originally brought charges against Zarrab, Preet Bharara had already been removed by the Trump administration in March, and a high-profile, pro-Trump legal team has come to Zarrab’s defense. Former New York City mayor and notable Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey have been voluntarily appointed as Zarrab’s defense lawyers. Giuliani’s bank, Greenberg Traurig, is registered as a Turkish agent.
Clearly, there has been a great deal of interest and intervention in the case on behalf of Trump’s associates, contrary to what the Turkish side may declare publically. Back in April, Giuliani and Mukasey traveled to Turkey to hold a secret meeting with President Erdoğan to discuss what Mukasey described as a means to a “state-to-state resolution of the case.” In an affidavit filed around the same time, Giuliani claimed that both U.S. and Turkish officials were “receptive” to a diplomatic deal in the Zarrab case.
However, while Erdoğan and his American team have largely placed their hopes in the powers of diplomacy, the outcome of the case is largely determined by the independent U.S. courts. Despite the authority of the U.S. president, this case may prove Trump’s executive limits and will in resolving Turkey’s problem. It is critical, in turn, that Ankara sees this case as a matter of the judiciary and respects the independent decision of the U.S. courts. Simply reaching out to Trump and further intensifying the transactionalism of the Trump-Erdoğan relationship will yield little benefit in the long run for either the U.S. or Turkey, especially as a number of investigations threaten Trump and his associates.
Is there any benefit for the Trump administration to get directly involved in this case? While it is certainly in the interest of the United States to uphold the legitimacy of its NATO ally Turkey, further thought should be put into the boogeyman in this case: Iran. With a large anti-Iran cadre among Trump supporters, it is important to keep in mind that tough enforcement of Iranian sanctions, no matter who is behind this crime, is tantamount to Trump’s foreign policy identity as president.
Megan Gisclon is a managing editor and researcher at the Istanbul Policy Center.