Foreign agents reported being paid more than $30.5 million to influence U.S. policy or public opinion on behalf of Turkish interests during the Trump administration. An inquiry the Justice Department has reportedly launched an inquiry into Rudy Giuliani may reveal even more undisclosed lobbying.
Giuliani, Trump’s former personal attorney and former New York City mayor, urged Trump in 2017 to drop federal charges against Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also publicly sought to have the charges dropped. Zarrab was accused of helping Halkbank, the Turkish state-run bank, send billions of dollars to Iran in violation of United States sanctions. The former mayor also encouraged Trump to extradite Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish cleric, back to Turkey.
The new report on the inquiry follows Giuliani being disbarred in New York.
If the DOJ concludes Giuliani lobbied on behalf of Turkish interests, Giuliani could be forced to register as a foreign agent. Giuliani has denied lobbying for foreign interests.
In 2017, the Turkish government signed a contract with Greenberg Traurig LLP, a Florida-based law firm where Giuliani was a partner from 2016 to 2018. The firm has cosistsetly ranked as one of the top grossing foreign registrants for Turkey. The Turkish government paid the firm over $1.2 million in 2017, $1.7 million in 2018 and $769,000 in 2019. It also became the top grossing foreign registrant for Turkey in 2020 after the government paid the firm over $1.15 million.
Greenberg Traurig has claimed its lobbying was ethical and that it separated Guiliani’s legal work from its foreign lobbying. But several Democratic senators signed a letter in 2018 urging the DOJ to determine if Giuliani had complied with requirements for foreign agents. Federal prosecutors are also investigating whether Giuliani lobbied Trump on behalf of Ukrainian interests.
Giuliani wouldn’t be the only lobbying tie Turkey had to the Trump White House.
The same year that Turkey signed on with Greenberg Traurig, the country’s government and Halbank also hired Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm based in Washington D.C.
The firm’s president, Brian Ballard, was vice chair of Trump’s inaugural committee and was a member of his transition team. He went on to be a bundler for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid, fundraising more than $2.2 million. Trump also appointed Ballard to the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which gave the lobbyist even more access to the Trump administration.
Ballard Partners was the top grossing lobbying firm working for Turkey in 2017 and 2018, serving as an agent for the Turkish government and Halkbank. The Turkish government paid the firm over $1.1 million in 2017 and $750,000 in 2018, while Halbank paid over $758,000 in 2017 and over $1.5 million in 2018.
Ballard’s firm has other reported Trump ties too, like former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who runs the firm’s corporate regulatory compliance practice. Bondi decided not to pursue a case against Trump University in 2014 shortly after her campaign received a $25,000 donation from the Trump Foundation, which stirred up scrutiny and penalties from the IRS.
Justin Sayfie, who was a member of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, is also a partner at Ballard Partners. And former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs James Rubin both worked at Ballard too.
The firm’s lobbying mainly focused on the State Department and Treasury Department during the Trump administration. The firm later cut ties with Halkbank a day after the bank was indicted for a massive money laundering scheme.
Mercury Public Affairs, a D.C.-based consulting firm, is also among Turkey’s top grossing registrants and has deep ties to Trump.
The firm has represented the Turkish government and the Turkey-U.S. Business Council, known as TAİK. TAİK, a government-linked business advocacy organization, paid the firm nearly $3.9 million in 2018. It also only paid the firm $300,000 in 2019, and over $801,000 in 2020.
As a part of those influence efforts, Mercury brought on Bryan Lanza, who served as Trump’s communications director on the presidential transition team, as a partner at the firm’s Washington D.C. office in 2018. It also hired Eric Branstad as managing director of its Iowa office in 2018. Branstad was part of the 2017 inaugural committee and is an adviser for Tump’s joint fundraising committee. Both worked at Mercury while the firm was lobbying on behalf of TAIK and the turkish government.
Every year, TAİK hosts a U.S.-Turkish conference with the American Turkish Council to bring together military, business and political figures from both countries. The organizations held the conference at Trump hotel properties multiple years during the Trump administration.
TAİK’s chairman, Turkish businessman Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, helped negotiate a licencing deal for Trump’s properties in Turkey. Trump’s foreign business interests in Turkey brought in up to $9 million since 2016 and Yalcindag went on to lobby the Trump administration on behalf of TAİK.
The Turkish government also spent substantial sums defending the former president.
Mercury defended Trump’s decisions in 2019 to withdraw troops from Syria and circulated a New York Times editorial by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, a Turkish diplomat, that described the U.S.’ longtime Kurdish allies as terrorists.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who was forced to resign soon after the 2017 inauguration, also had ties to Turkey. Inovo BV, a Netherlands-based consulting firm owned by Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin, paid Flynn’s lobbying group, Flynn Intel Group, $530,000 in 2016 for a campaign against Gülen, which Flynn later failed to disclose to the DOJ.
Under the lobbying contract, Flynn published a column in The Hill that called Gülen a “shady Islamic mullah” and compared him to Osama bin Laden. Mullah is a name given to local Islamic clerics that members of the Taliban have also used.
Flynn, who was the only member of the Trump administration to be charged in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. But Flynn later withdrew his plea and Trump pardoned him in 2020.