In 2016, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked then-Vice-President Joe Biden to lean on federal prosecutors who were investigating a Turkish bank for financial crimes and to hand over a dissident cleric living in the United States. The requests seemed to be on Biden’s mind when he publicly addressed reporters and piously explained that, in the United States, the justice system doesn’t work like that. “I suspect it’s hard for people to understand that as powerful as my country is, as powerful as Barack Obama is as president, he has no authority under our Constitution to extradite anyone,” Biden explained to reporters. “Only a federal court can do that. Nobody else can do that. If the president were to take this into his own hands, what would happen would be he would be impeached for violating the separation of powers.”
Well, the justice system works like that now.
The New York Times has a comprehensive report on Erdogan’s successful efforts to recruit top Trump administration officials into his corrupt scheme.
Scandals tend to be complicated, especially scandals involving banks. But this one is extremely simple. The basic elements:
1) The Justice Department was prosecuting financial crimes by a Turkish bank.
2) Turkey’s president asked President Trump to quash the investigation.
3) Trump has personally received more than $1 million in payments from business in Turkey while serving as president.
4) Two attorneys general loyal to Trump, Matthew Whitaker and William Barr, both pressured federal prosecutors to go easy on the Turkish bank.
The Times adds plenty of new detail to the last point, which is yet another blow to anybody who hoped Barr might preserve some shred of respect for the rule of law. “In mid-June 2019, when [Geoffrey] Berman met with Mr. Barr in Washington, the attorney general pushed Mr. Berman to agree to allow the Justice Department to drop charges against the defendants and terminate investigations of other suspected conspirators,” the Times reports. When Barr subsequently fired Berman, who resisted his pressure, Justice Department officials cited his stubbornness on the Turkey case “as a key reason for his removal.”
Biden’s casual assumption in 2016 that granting Erdogan’s wish would automatically result in impeachment is a time-capsule record of the standards of good government that prevailed before Trump blew them to smithereens. In a pre-Trump world, the Turkish bank scandal would destroy a normal presidency.
The misconduct found by the Times is actually much worse than the hypothetical behavior Biden said would lead to impeachment for two reasons. First, it undermines Trump’s own foreign policy. The crimes for which the bank, Halkbank, was being investigated relate to violating American sanctions on Iran. After the Obama administration relaxed sanctions on Iran as part of a nuclear deal, the Trump administration ramped up those sanctions and used them as the lynchpin of its strategy in the region. (This helps explain why national security adviser John Bolton, an Iran Über-hawk, was motivated to blow the whistle on this corruption.)
Now, you don’t have to agree with the administration’s agenda of pressuring Iran. I certainly don’t. The point is that the fact that it undermined its own policy agenda highlights the extent of the corruption.
And second, Trump’s own financial interest is a factor Biden did not imagine in 2016. When Trump was asked about Turkey in 2015, he conceded that he had a conflict of interest. “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump told Breitbart. “It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one. … And I’ve gotten to know Turkey very well. They’re amazing people. They’re incredible people. They have a strong leader.”
Yes, having a lucrative business deal in a foreign country, especially an oligarchy where leaders intermingle official favors with foreign policy, is a deep conflict of interest. It’s fundamentally disqualifying, in fact.
If Trump wins reelection, the House should launch impeachment hearings.