“[T]his story is a good example of why pious Republican outrage over possible Biden overseas entanglements falls with such a thud,” said Ross Douthat about this Times scoop, correctly. It’s everything that the Hunter Biden laptop narrative claims to be, an expose of a high government official abusing the power of his office to do favors for shady foreigners, possibly in order to protect his own overseas interests.
Trumpers are right to complain about the gatekeeping around the Hunter Biden story, particularly Twitter’s attempt to suppress it. The media will tell you that they’re not covering it because they fear it’s false and/or a foreign influence operation, and that they don’t want a reprise of 2016 in which a Russian dirty trick is amplified through their own outlets. But really, they don’t want to cover the story because they fear it might be true and/or not a case of foreign meddling, which would oblige them to dig into it at the worst possible moment for Joe Biden. They’d rather wash their hands of the whole thing.
Read this with a reminder that the gatekeeping goes both ways, though. It’s a story of a sitting president and his lackeys meddling in the prosecution of a foreign entity that was undermining his own foreign policy in order to curry favor with Turkey’s sleazebag ruler, for reasons that remain unclear. It’s real news. But most of righty media will suppress it or spin it as aggressively as big media is spinning and suppressing the Hunter Biden stuff, even though the Times has Trump’s former National Security Advisor on the record along with some two dozen other sources. Fox News probably won’t spend more than a few minutes of airtime on it, assuming they touch it at all.
But other media will. And the part of the public that consumes that media will view the distinct lack of outrage over the Halkbank case from people who profess outrage over the Hunter Biden matter in context in deciding how seriously they should take the latter.
The SDNY has spent the last several years prosecuting Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank, for various crimes, including evading U.S. sanctions on Iran. That’s Trump’s own policy, of course, aimed at pressuring the Iranian regime financially to force them to make concessions on their nuclear program. According to the Times, not one but two of Trump’s attorneys general, Bill Barr and former acting AG Matt Whitaker, leaned on the U.S. Attorney in charge of the case to go easy on the Turks and drop parts of the prosecution. How come? Well, Erdogan appealed privately to Trump more than once to intervene, fearing that a harsh financial penalty imposed by the U.S. could wreck the bank or that the investigation could lead to his own inner circle. Interestingly, he also appealed privately to the previous administration for help — specifically, to a figure you might recognize — but was rebuked. The United States doesn’t obstruct justice for political reasons, he was told:
Speaking to reporters before he left Turkey, Mr. Biden made clear that there were limits to what the United States could or should do to address Mr. Erdogan’s requests, including any effort to extradite Mr. Gulen.
“If the president were to take this into his own hands, what would happen would be he would be impeached for violating the separation of powers,” Mr. Biden said, with Mr. Erdogan at his side.
That was Biden in 2016, with not the barest inkling that that norm was soon to go up in smoke. Erdogan allegedly went as far as to ask him to have the U.S. Attorney at the time, Preet Bharara, removed from his position in order to obstruct the case. No dice.
But Trump was different:
At the White House, Mr. Trump’s handling of the matter became troubling even to some senior officials at the time.
The president was discussing an active criminal case with the authoritarian leader of a nation in which Mr. Trump does business; he reported receiving at least $2.6 million in net income from operations in Turkey from 2015 through 2018, according to tax records obtained by The New York Times.
And Mr. Trump’s sympathetic response to Mr. Erdogan was especially jarring because it involved accusations that the bank had undercut Mr. Trump’s policy of economically isolating Iran, a centerpiece of his Middle East plan.
Former White House officials said they came to fear that the president was open to swaying the criminal justice system to advance a transactional and ill-defined agenda of his own.
Trump had built a Trump Towers in Istanbul four years before being elected, with Erdogan attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Whether the president’s handling of Halkbank was a case of him banking a favor for the future or returning a favor that Erdogan had already done for him isn’t known. But John Bolton has identified Trump’s relationship with the Turkish leader as one of the most alarming things he observed as NSA, telling an audience at a private speech last year that he thought Trump’s positions on Turkey were being dictated by some personal or business relationship. He couldn’t make sense otherwise of why Trump resisted sanctions on Turkey passed by Congress after the Turks purchased a Russian missile defense system. And he couldn’t make sense of Trump’s interest in the DOJ’s handling of the Halkbank case, writing about it in his book and speaking to the Times about it for today’s story.
According to Bolton, Trump himself told Erdogan in 2018 that he wanted to replace prosecutors at the SDNY. And lo and behold, that finally happened in June of this year under bizarre circumstances, with Bill Barr insisting that U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman had resigned and Berman himself issuing a statement insisting that he hadn’t. Trump then fired Berman the next day to finally force him off the job, but Berman’s resistance to leaving his position raised suspicions that Trump and Barr wanted him out for some illicit reason with which he was reluctant to go along. The Times piece suggests that Berman’s handling of the Halkbank case was part of the calculus. Acting AG Matt Whitaker reportedly wanted the case dropped altogether, but his deputies at the DOJ ignored him in the belief that he wouldn’t last in his position for long. Then Bill Barr took over and ended up leaning on Berman personally to drop the charges.All Barr wanted was a fine for the bank itself and an admission of some wrongdoing, with the key players involved all off the hook.
Berman wouldn’t go for it, finding it crazy that criminal suspects would be let go without even a promise of cooperation. “Justice Department officials cited his handling of the Halkbank matter, including his blocking of the proposed global settlement, as a key reason for his removal,” the Times claims. If that’s true then an ethical prosecutor got bounced because he wouldn’t cut a special deal for the president’s corrupt Turkish autocratic ally, who was pestering the White House to interfere with the case. Bolton made a good point about that in the piece: Trump’s willingness to exert leverage on Erdogan’s behalf meant that the targets of the probe had no incentive to cooperate with the DOJ. If making a deal with Berman was their only hope of avoiding prosecution, they would have had no choice; but once the president started twisting Berman’s arm their incentive to work with the SDNY evaporated. Trump’s own Justice Department ended up hamstrung by his meddling, allegedly abetted by Bill Barr.
The Halkbank prosecution finally did proceed, but only after Erdogan’s Trump-permitted invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria earned the president a bunch of bad press here at home.
All of this is context for the last-second hit on Biden’s character that Team Trump is trying to orchestrate right now. Which, I suppose, is less crazy than it seems at first blush. If Biden’s core pitch to the electorate is that he’ll restore norms and rebuild the dignity of the office, any dirt suggesting that he’s a sleaze too is useful in neutralizing that pitch. The question is whether there’s been so much sleaze and indecorousness from Trump himself over the past four years that Biden is functionally immune on that point, for the reason Douthat gave at the beginning of this post. It can’t possibly be that the Trump campaign and its followers are worried in good faith about ethics at this point. So why should voters take their ethical objections seriously?