Skip to main content

Senate Democrat Seeks Barr’s Recusal from ‘Investigation and Prosecution’ of Turkish State-Owned Bank


A Senate Democrat investigating President Donald Trump’s “potential improper interference” in a Department of Justice probe and prosecution of Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank is seeking Attorney General William Barr’s recusal from the matter.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, suggested on Monday that a New York Times report about the purported contents of John Bolton’s book was troubling enough that Barr should recuse himself from “any further involvement in the investigation and prosecution” of the foreign bank.

In case you missed it last week, the Times reported the book saying that Bolton told Barr in 2019 he was concerned Trump was essentially granting personal favors to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Xi Jinping of China. Barr was described as “worried” about Trump creating the appearance of having inappropriate influence over active DOJ probes of Chinese and Turkish companies (Halkbank, in the case of Turkey).

A DOJ spox responded by saying that there was “no discussion of ‘personal favors’ or ‘undue influence’ on the investigation, nor did Attorney General Barr state that the President’s conversations with foreign leaders was improper.”

Back in Oct. 2019, Law&Crime reported that Democrats launched an investigation seeking information about President Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s actions in the Halkbank case. The investigation followed a Bloomberg report that claimed Trump pressed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help convince the DOJ to drop a criminal case against Reza Zarrab, 34 — an Iranian-Turkish gold trader and a client of Giuliani’s.

Giuliani reportedly sought Tillerson’s help in 2017 in orchestrating a potential prisoner swap with Turkey, even though federal prosecutors had accused Zarrab of “playing a central role in an effort by a state-owned Turkish bank to funnel more than $10 billion worth of gold and cash to Iran, in defiance of United States sanctions designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program.” On October 15, 2019, the DOJ charged Halkbank for “its participation in a multibillion-dollar Iranian sanctions evasion scheme.”

Democrats said at the time that they were also interested in learning about Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s “alleged involvement with the treatment of Halkbank”:

[Sen. Ron] Wyden referred to a Bloomberg News report published earlier this month that Trump assigned Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated pleas to avoid charges against Halkbank.

In an April phone call, Trump told Erdogan that Mnuchin and Barr would handle the issue, according to people familiar with the matter. In the months that followed, no action was taken against Halkbank for its alleged involvement in a plan to evade sanctions on Iran. That changed when an undated indictment was unveiled last week — a day after Trump imposed sanctions over Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.

Wyden claims his investigation has uncovered evidence from the Treasury Department that Trump forwarded Erdogan’s concerns to the DOJ:

However, reports of interference by President Trump are corroborated by the facts uncovered in my own investigation. In a November 20, 2019 letter to me, Treasury Department officials confirmed the following:

As was publicly reported, when Prime Minister Erdogan raised concerns directly with President Trump in April 2019, the President referred the issue to the Executive Branch departments responsible by law for the investigation and enforcement of economic sanctions-the Treasury and DOJ.

Wyden asked Barr to respond to eight questions by Feb. 18. The questions mainly asked if the president asked Barr to take any particular action with regard to Halkbank or if Trump interfered in any way with the DOJ’s “independent inquiry.”

“Did you or any other senior Justice Department officials ever appeal directly to the Treasury Department, at any level, on behalf of President Trump or the Turkish government?” Wyden asked, before asking if Barr would “commit” to rescuing himself from the Halkbank case henceforth.

You can read the letter below:

Sen. Wyden letter to William Barr by Law&Crime on Scribd

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.