Special to the Armenian Weekly
President Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI on Friday. A few days prior, a prominent Azeri-Turkish businessman testified in New York about having worked with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
Is there any connection between these two former power brokers who turned state’s evidence? All signs seem to suggest so—and they are pointing to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
On March 19, 2016, a high-profile, wealthy businessman named Reza Zarrab was arrested by federal agents in Miami for illegally trading Iranian gas for gold, and laundering the money through U.S. financial institutions. Zarrab, who holds citizenship in Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Macedonia, carried out this violation of U.S. sanctions with the aid of the Turkish government.
Erdogan began immediately calling on the Obama administration to do away with the case, fearing what would be revealed if Zarrab went to trial. Indeed, soon after Zarrab was arrested, others began to be indicted, including Turkey’s former Economy Minister and several heads of Turkish state-owned banks.
When the overtures to officials such as then-Vice-President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch did not pan out, the Turkish government set its sights on the Trump administration.
Michael Flynn was at the center of its strategy.
Flynn’s guilty plea this past Friday included admissions of being a lobbyist “for the principal benefit of the Republic of Turkey.” His statement of offense read that he lied in his Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings about being under the “supervision and direction” of “officials from the Republic of Turkey.” In other words, Trump’s leading national security adviser has openly admitted to having been a paid agent of the Turkish government.
One of the many services Flynn is suspected of carrying out was a plot to help free Zarrab and drop the case against him. There are reports that Flynn met with Turkish officials in mid-December—after being officially designated National Security Adviser—to discuss a deal in which he and his son would be paid $15 million for their assistance.
In addition, the U.S. attorney in charge of prosecuting the Turkish gas-for-gold case, Preet Bharara, was abruptly fired by Trump on March 11. That firing alone is not shocking, considering that it was part of a mass dismissal of 46 former Obama-era prosecutors. What is bizarre is that Bharara was being personally courted by Trump prior to his termination.
After winning the election, the president-elect called for a meeting with Bharara at Trump Towers in New York, where he asked for his cell phone number and said he wanted to keep him on the job. He called Bharara three times after that, including on the day before the inauguration, simply to “shoot the breeze.” Bharara characterized the conversations with Trump as one where the latter was trying to cultivate a relationship with him.
For a sitting U.S. president to be directly contacting a U.S. attorney is not exactly the ethical norm. As a result, Bharara let Trump know he could not answer his calls. A few days later he was fired. “To my knowledge, Donald Trump did not reach out to any other U.S. attorney,” said Bharara on his podcast, “and none has come forward to say they got a phone call—it seemed like it was just me.” Like other justice officials who have been fired by Trump this year, Bhahara felt he was, inappropriately, being vetted to carry out wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Zarrab himself hired former New York Mayor and close Trump confidante Rudolph Giuliani to be his attorney. Giuliani—who is an adviser to the president and whose law firm is also a registered foreign agent of Turkey—tried to resolve the case by flying back and forth between Ankara and Washington. Instead of pursuing legal channels, he pursued high-level meetings with the Trump administration in an attempt to arrange an extrajudicial “prisoner swap” between Zarrab and unnamed Americans being held in Turkey.
Those efforts failed, and Zarrab’s prosecution continued to move forward. As a result, officials in Ankara grew more and more hysterical.
Erdogan has called the Zarrab trial a plot to “blackmail” Turkey, masterminded by an Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania. Both Bhararra and his successor, Joon H. Kim, have been accused of being part of the conspiracy and have had investigations opened against them in Turkey. Authorities have also arrested a longtime employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on allegations that he is linked to the cleric behind it all. They also called on the acting American Ambassador, John Bass, to resign in the wake of the row over the consulate employee’s arrest.
However, despite all of the lashing out in Ankara, not once has Erdogan criticized Trump himself.
Instead, Erdogan calls the American president “my dear friend Donald.” Trump similarly expresses great admiration for his counterpart, saying at a meeting with Erdogan in September, “I think right now we are as close as we’ve ever been. And a lot of that has to do with the personal relationship.” Trump added, “Frankly [Erdogan’s] getting very high marks.” Even after Erdogan’s bodyguards brutally attacked peaceful U.S. citizens (not once, but twice!), in Washington and New York, Trump refrained from making any condemnation of Turkey.
Despite the affinity between the two presidents, Zarrab was unable to stop U.S. prosecutors from moving forward with the trial. Seeing no other way of sparing himself, he decided to go from being a defendant in the gas-for-gold case to the government’s main witness.
And this is when the relationship between Michael Flynn and the authorities also began to shift.
About a week after news surfaced of Zarrab’s flip, Flynn’s lawyer told the Trump legal team that he can no longer share information with them about the FBI’s special counsel investigation into the administration, signaling the beginnings of a plea deal. Another week went by, and Zarrab took the stand in New York. Three days later, Flynn plead guilty to the FBI in Washington.
Many analysts believe that Zarrab’s decision to work with the authorities was the tipping point that led Flynn to similarly begin cooperating with the special counsel. What Zarrab, and his associates like Giuliani, may know about the extent of Flynn’s and Trump’s dealings is yet to be seen.
However, what we do know is that Michael Flynn—a man at the center of the Trump team, with access to the most sensitive state secrets—was a paid agent of the Turkish government. His statement of offense issued on Friday clearly states he was being paid and directed from officials in Ankara. His activities may have included not only plans to kidnap an American resident but also to free a man charged with helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions and derail plans to defeat ISIS in Syria. What’s more, even after Flynn left the White House, the Trump administration continued to placate Ankara and considered extrajudicial measures to free Zarrab and others evading sanctions against Iran, in exchange for freeing American citizens being held as bargaining chips by Turkey.
Is it any wonder, then, why Erdogan feels so free to try to meddle in the U.S. judicial and legislative system, plot kidnappings, barter for detainees, and attack peaceful protesters when visiting the country? Not to mention the repression he carries out in his own country and in the region.
What Zarrab and Flynn, as well as the broader FBI investigation into the Trump administration, will reveal has yet to be fully uncovered. What is for certain is that the coming days of this investigation will be critical for not only the future of democracy and rule of law in the U.S. but also the basic protection of the nation’s sovereignty against foreign intervention.