President Donald Trump repeatedly sought to interfere in the US judicial system to curry favor with leaders from Turkey to China, according to a new book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
At a Group of 20 meeting in 2018, Trump told President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he thought a key Turkish bank facing a Justice Department indictment “was totally innocent of violating US Iran sanctions” and vowed to “take care of things,” according to Bolton.
The book, which the White House has dismissed as “lies” and sought to block from going on sale next week, also describes how willing the president was to try to use a US prosecution and fines against a Chinese telecommunications company, ZTE Corp., as a bargaining chip in trade talks. A copy of Bolton’s book, titled “The Room Where It Happened,” was obtained by Bloomberg News.
A copy of “The Room Where It Happened,” by former national security adviser John Bolton, is photographed at the White House.
The details offer new evidence of Trump’s apparent willingness to inject his personal political priorities into US legal cases to win favors or impress leaders at odds with the US The president was impeached by the House last year for trying to withhold congressionally mandated aid to Ukraine to get that country’s government to pursue an investigation in former Vice President Joe Biden’s family.
In repeated phone calls and meetings, Bolton says Trump asked aides including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, his acting attorney general and other top aides to get senior Justice Department officials involved in the case against the Turkish bank, known as Halkbank. The financial institution was accused of being engaged in a massive scheme to evade sanctions on Iran.
“Trump asked whether we could reach acting US Attorney General Matt Whitaker, which I sidestepped,” Bolton writes about the case, which was being prosecuted by federal officials in New York. “Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people.”
Bolton describes numerous other meetings and phone calls where Erdogan brought up the Halkbank case. He describes Trump as largely uninterested in the case and instead focused on securing the release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor held in Turkey at the time.
The US later brought a criminal case against Halkbank, shortly after Turkey invaded Syria against the Trump administration’s warnings to stay out of the conflict.
In the ZTE case, after the administration announced a seven-year ban on US exports to the company, effectively shutting down its operations worldwide, Trump reversed course and allowed the company to stay in business after paying a relatively modest fine of about $1.2 billion.
In a passage that Bolton’s many critics in Washington will see as rich in irony, the former national security adviser says congressional Democrats pursuing impeachment charges against Trump would have had a better chance of finding “high crimes and misdemeanors” if they’d focused on those cases and not just Ukraine.
Bolton declined to testify to House investigators last year without a subpoena, a process that could have held up proceedings indefinitely. When the impeachment case was sent to the Senate, the Republican majority prevented him from being called as a witness.
In the book, Bolton describes how he grew so concerned about Trump’s apparent willingness to disregard the US legal system that he felt compelled to raise the issue with Attorney General William Barr.
”Specifically, however, I also wanted to brief him on Trump’s penchant to, in effect, give personal favors to dictators he liked, such as the criminal cases of Halkbank, ZTE, potentially Huawei, and who knew what else,” Bolton writes. “Barr said he was very worried about the appearances Trump was creating, especially his remarks on Halkbank to Erdogan in Buenos Aires at the G-20 meeting.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on the allegations surrounding Halkbank, some details of which Bloomberg News reported last October. Pressed for a response, department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec highlighted a statement from January, after parts of Bolton’s manuscript were first reported by the New York Times, saying that his account of the conversation with Barr “grossly mischaracterizes” what they talked about.
“There was no discussion of ‘personal favors’ or ‘undue influence’ on investigations, nor did Attorney General Barr state that the president’s conversations with foreign leaders was improper,” the statement said.
Trump has also denied any impropriety in the ZTE case. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Thursday, he said Bolton wasn’t around for the ZTE action.
“ZTE was my deal,” Trump told the Journal. “I put the fine on them. And I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I essentially closed them up. That was me.”