Istanbul: Behind President Donald Trump’s accommodating attitude towards Turkey is an unusual back channel: a trio of sons-in-law who married into power and now play key roles in connecting Ankara with Washington.
One, Turkey’s finance minister, is the son-in-law of its strongman president and oversees his country’s relationship with the United States.
Another is the son-in-law of a Turkish tycoon and became a business partner to the Trump Organisation. Now he advocates for Turkey with the Trump administration.
And the third is Jared Kushner, who as the son-in-law of and senior adviser to Trump has a vague if expansive foreign policy portfolio.
Operating both individually and in tandem, the three men have developed an informal, next-generation line of communication between Trump and his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who only weeks after his military incursion into northern Syria is scheduled to visit the White House on Wednesday.
At a moment when Trump has come under bipartisan criticism from Congress for a series of stands favourable to Erdogan, the ties among the three men show how informal and often-unseen connections between the two presidents have helped shape US policy in a volatile part of the world.
Erdogan predicted in a television interview this year that a private dialogue between Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and finance minister, and Kushner would soon put “back on track” the vexed relations between Washington and Ankara. “The bridge works well in this manner,” Erdogan said.
“Backdoor diplomacy,” Albayrak called his work with Kushner.
Trump’s policy towards Turkey has confounded his fellow Republicans in Congress on a number of fronts. Trump twice surprised his own advisers by agreeing during phone calls with Erdogan to pull US troops from northern Syria - and the second time, in early October, he followed through, clearing the way for Turkish forces to attack a US-backed militia there.
Critics say the Trump administration has balked at aggressively punishing a state-owned Turkish bank for evading US sanctions against Iran. Trump has also deferred legally mandated sanctions against Turkey, a member of Nato, for installing Russian missile defence systems.
Speaking last week at a closed-door presentation hosted by Morgan Stanley, John Bolton, the former national security adviser, said Trump often confuses personal relationships with national relationships when it comes to setting policy. He cited as an example the president’s reluctance to confront Erdogan by imposing sanctions on Turkey over the Russian weapons purchase, a person who was in the room for his presentation said Tuesday after NBC News reported a version of Bolton’s remarks.
On the Russian missiles, banking sanctions and other matters, Erdogan has deployed both his own son-in-law and Trump’s Turkish business partner, Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, as emissaries to the administration, sometimes through Kushner, according to Turkish officials and public records.
In April, for example, Albayrak had come to Washington for a conference organized by Yalcindag at the Trump International Hotel. And in the middle of the event, Kushner summoned Albayrak to an impromptu meeting in the Oval Office, where Albayrak successfully pressed Trump to hold back the sanctions against Turkey for buying Russian weapons.
Both leaders appear to favour family or business connections as back channels, several advisers to Erdogan said, in part because both share a suspicion that the agencies of their own governments may be conspiring against them.
“Trump is replacing formal relations among nations in several cases with family-to-family relationship, or crony-to-crony relationships,” said Eric S. Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defence for policy and US ambassador to Turkey during the George W. Bush administration.
“Certainly Erdogan would prefer that kind of relationship as he runs a crony capitalist regime of his own,” Edelman said. “But it ought to be a matter of concern to all Americans.”
Erdogan and Trump are hardly natural partners. Erdogan is a champion of political Islam who often argues that the West is in decline. Trump is a fierce nationalist who has often denigrated Muslims and especially political Islamists. Trump’s ties to Turkey, though, go back more than a decade, beginning with an invitation from Yalcindag to do business in Istanbul.
Yalcindag’s father-in-law, tycoon Aydin Dogan, had set out to build two skyscrapers and a shopping mall. Yalcindag, now 55, convinced him that the family company should find an international partner. Yalcindag had negotiated to use the name “CNN Turk” for the family’s television news network, and he flew to New York to sell Trump on lending his name to the Istanbul towers.
The skyscrapers, which opened in 2012 as Trump Towers Istanbul, pay the Trump Organization only a licensing fee - $5 million to $10 million a year in the first years after it opened, and down to $100,000 to $1 million a year in more recent years - according to Trump’s financial disclosure forms.
But the buildings were the first residential and commercial towers in Europe to hang the Trump name, and both families considered them a success.
For the past decade, Yalcindag has typically seen Trump socially about three or four times a year, according to a person close to the family.
Trump, as he ran for president, acknowledged that his personal relationships influenced his view of Turkey.
“I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said in a radio interview in 2015, gushing that it was “a tremendously successful job.”
When Trump pledged to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Erdogan briefly called for the removal of the Trump name from the towers. But heeding advice about the value of good relations with Washington, he never followed through.
Erdogan’s advisers assumed Trump would lose in 2016. But Yalcindag flew 10 hours to be with Trump and his family at the New York Hilton Midtown while the votes were counted.
Frantic to reach the new president-elect the next day, the Turkish Embassy in Washington eventually turned in desperation to Yalcindag for the telephone number of Trump headquarters - beginning his new role as a go-between for Ankara.
Erdogan knew Yalcindag from Turkish business circles, and he had reportedly collaborated with Erdogan’s son-in-law on a campaign to influence the Turkish news media. On the strength of his ties to the Trump family, Erdogan also named Yalcindag to a new role as chairman of a state-run business group that lobbies Washington on behalf of Ankara.
The group’s previous chairman, Ekim Alptekin, had run afoul of American prosecutors by paying more than $500,000 to the consulting firm of retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who went on to become Trump’s first national security adviser. Prosecutors said Alptekin was paying Flynn to lobby the Turkish government, and they eventually indicted him for violating lobbying disclosure rules and for lying to investigators. (Alptekin has not returned to the United States to face trial.)
Taking over as the face of the state-sponsored Turkey-US Business Council after Trump’s election, Yalcindag began to travel regularly to Washington. The council for the first time held its annual conferences at the Trump hotel in Washington, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the hotel while pulling in top Trump administration officials as speakers.
During a visit this year, Yalcindag also made stops on Capitol Hill and at the State Department, not only to lobby on trade policy but on an array of other issues, as well.
In one State Department meeting, according to a person present, his agenda included pushing for the extradition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Erdogan of promoting the 2016 coup attempt against him; pleading for the United States to quietly settle the sanctions case against the Turkish bank with a limited fine; arguing for the sale of Patriot missiles to reduce Turkey’s need for Russian alternatives; and making the case for a Turkish takeover of northern Syria.
At times, Yalcindag implicitly threatened that Turkey might move closer to Moscow. “You might not consider Turkey at the moment as your best friend,” he told the Americans, according to a person who attended the meeting. “But it would be a shame to lose a long-standing ally.”
Albayrak, 41, is often referred to in Turkey simply as “the groom.” But he acquired a new nickname after Trump’s election: Erdogan’s Kushner.
The son of a journalist close to Erdogan, Albayrak lived in New York early in his career. He earned a business degree at Pace University while working for the US division of one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates, Calik Holding.
He married the president’s daughter Esra in 2004, and he was named chief executive of Calik three years later.
By 2015, Erdogan helped Albayrak, then 37, to win a seat in Parliament and named him energy minister. But Albayrak’s influence rose even more rapidly after a faction of military leaders attempted a coup against Erdogan in July 2016. Albayrak joined his father-in-law on a jet circling the skies over Turkey while Erdogan used his iPhone to rally his supporters. (A live interview by FaceTime with CNN Turk, founded by Yalcindag, helped turn the tide.)
After surviving the coup attempt, Erdogan responded by purging perceived enemies and silencing dissent. Albayrak spearheaded the crackdown.
He was quickly elevated to the role of finance minister. But Albayrak acquired so much clout that some, including Cabinet members, described him as a shadow premier.
He helped orchestrate a takeover of a large portion of the Turkish news media, much of which is now under the control of his younger brother, Serhat Albayrak. (Both brothers over the years have also worked closely with Yalcindag.)
At the same time, Berat Albayrak - who unlike his father-in-law speaks fluent English - also took primary control over relations with Washington.
Among his missions was to seek the extradition of Gulen, the religious leader blamed by Erdogan for orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt. In September of that year, Albayrak met with Flynn in New York to discuss a campaign to seek Gulen’s extradition to Turkey. That effort led to criminal charges against two others in the meeting, Flynn and Alptekin.
The Justice Department at the same time was investigating the second-largest Turkish state bank, Halkbank, for a huge, multiyear effort to evade US sanctions against Iran. Prosecutors said the bank transferred billions of dollars’ worth of gold to Iran in exchange for oil and gas.
Erdogan and Albayrak, according to information the US investigators were then assembling, personally approved the sanctions-evasion scheme even after officials in the United States had arrested a Turkish-Iranian gold trader in the matter. (Turkish officials say their government had publicly dismissed the sanctions on Iran as US policy that was not binding on Turkey.)
As the prosecution ramped up, Albayrak pressed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to not impose new penalties on Halkbank.
“We had a positive meeting with our US counterpart,” Albayrak told reporters in Turkey after a conversation with Mnuchin late last year. “We told them that Halkbank had not violated sanctions,” he added. “We have positive expectations.”
Erdogan denounced the allegations against the bank as another “political coup attempt” against him, and he urged Trump to shut down the investigation. For much of 2019, the bank negotiated with the Justice Department to avoid further charges, an effort that ended in October, amid the uproar over northern Syria, when the bank was indicted.
The two presidential sons-in-law have known each other since at least 2018. As energy minister, Albayrak had promoted closer economic ties to Israel, and by 2018, he had visited the White House to talk with Kushner about his plans for Middle East peace.
They met again in February in Ankara. Kushner was on his first official visit to discuss the Middle East with Erdogan and Albayrak.
By April, relations had grown strained again, in part over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian missile defense systems. And Erdogan was increasingly frustrated with the U.S. role in northern Syria, where a small US military force was protecting a Kurdish-led militia.
Erdogan saw the militia as an extension of a Kurdish nationalist movement inside Turkey. He wanted the Turkish military to push them away from the border, and during a phone call with Erdogan in December 2018, Trump had abruptly agreed to pull out and let the Turks take over - only to reverse himself under pressure from the Pentagon.
Against that backdrop, the three sons-in-law were set to attend a conference in April in Washington of the state-sponsored business group led by Yalcindag.
Albayrak had been set to meet with Mnuchin, but Kushner arranged for all three to join Trump in the Oval Office. Pictures of the meeting bolstered Albayrak in Ankara politics, and he told Turkish journalists that Trump had shown an “understanding perspective” on the question of the Russian missiles.
When the first Russian missiles arrived in Turkey in July, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a bipartisan statement urging Trump “to fully implement sanctions as required by law.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed confidence that sanctions were coming.
But a spokesman for Erdogan told the Turkish news media that after the Oval Office meeting with Albayrak, Trump had committed to using “the power that he has to intervene on that issue” and to holding off on the sanctions.
By late July, Trump appeared to deliver on that commitment.
“We have a complicated situation,” Trump told reporters, repeating Erdogan’s rationale that under the Obama administration Turkey “was not allowed” to buy the American-made Patriots instead of the Russian version.
“Then, as soon as he buys something else, everybody says, ‘OK. You can buy it,’” Trump said, sympathetically. “You can’t do business that way.”
To the public dismay of the many Republicans demanding sanctions, Trump instead asked the Senate Republicans for “flexibility.” He emphasized that the missiles were not yet operational and asked for time for more talks. (Trump canceled the planned sale of more than 100 F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, but the administration is holding continued discussions about letting Turkey back into the F-35 program.)
Then, during a phone call October 6, Trump unexpectedly acceded once again to the wishes of the Turkish president by agreeing to remove American troops from northern Syria, making way for the Turkish incursion against the US-backed Kurdish-led forces.
Faced with a domestic backlash, Trump threatened at one point to “destroy” Turkey’s economy, then announced but withdrew a new round of sanctions, and finally invited Erdogan to the White House.
The Justice Department filed criminal charges for sanctions-busting against Halkbank. But the Treasury Department has not imposed penalties.
And when Erdogan lands in Washington this week, his son-in-law will be with him. Yalcindag is there already.