NYT: Giuliani, Tillerson clashed over "prisoner swap" with Turkey

NYT: Giuliani, Tillerson clashed over "prisoner swap" with Turkey

Does this sound like a Tom Hanks movie? If so, let me ruin it for readers with this spoiler: Nothing actually happened in the end. The New York Times reports on an argument in the Oval Office between Rudy Giuliani and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in which Giuliani proposed a prisoner swap with Turkey. The deal would have sent the man behind a notorious Iran-sanctions evasion scheme in exchange for Pastor Andrew Brunson, although you have to read a long way in to find that out:

During a contentious Oval Office meeting with President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017, Rudolph W. Giuliani pressed for help in securing the release of a jailed client, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, as part of a potential prisoner swap with Turkey.

The request by Mr. Giuliani provoked an immediate objection from Mr. Tillerson, who argued that it would be highly inappropriate to interfere in an open criminal case, according to two people briefed on the meeting.

The gold trader, Reza Zarrab, had been accused by federal prosecutors of playing a central role in an effort by a state-owned Turkish bank to funnel more than $10 billion worth of gold and cash to Iran, in defiance of United States sanctions designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

But at the White House meeting in early 2017, Mr. Giuliani and his longtime friend and colleague, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, pushed back on Mr. Tillerson’s objections.

This looks like an attempt to paint Giuliani as even more of a cowboy/loose cannon than he already is. If so, this movie is about as compelling as, well, Loose Cannons. (If you’ve seen this well-cast stinker, you know what I mean.) As much as that might apply to Ukraine, it doesn’t appear to apply here, especially with the set-up that the NYT supplies. In a battle over legal analysis, I might not pick Giuliani over Tillerson ten times out of ten, but I’d pick Michael Mukasey twelve times out of ten. Giuliani might very well be a loose cannon, but Mukasey most certainly is not.

Furthermore, the issue of Brunson’s detention was a very big problem for Trump, politically and legally. Turkey’s government had targeted him merely for proclaiming Christianity a little too eagerly, in opposition to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s drift towards Islamist governance. Trump’s evangelical supporters demanded action to get Brunson out of prison, and preferably out of Turkey altogether, on top of which the political targeting of an American abroad is indeed a serious diplomatic matter. It’s very telling that the NYT waits until the very last paragraph to reveal the identity of the American for whom Giuliani and Mukasey proposed this swap.

That doesn’t make the Zarrab-for-Brunson swap proposal a good idea, but it wasn’t a ridiculous idea either. It also wouldn’t have been inappropriate for Zarrab’s attorneys, Giuliani and Mukasey, to make that proposal in an effort to work diligently on their client’s behalf. It might have worked to get Brunson out, although Brunson’s supporters might not have appreciated a swap with an actual criminal, nor might Brunson himself, who was reluctant to leave Turkey and his converts. Evangelicals wanted Trump to force Erdogan to release Brunson on Trump’s terms alone, based on the fact that Erdogan was railroading him. Turkey wanted Erdogan dissident Feithullah Gulen, though, not Zarrab, although Erdogan might have taken him as a second option.

In the end, Trump sided with Tillerson — which actually undermines the notion that Giuliani runs Trump to some extent. Zarrab got convicted, flipped on a bigger player who also got convicted, and more than a year later, Trump succeeded in using economic pressure to get Brunson released. Trump even rejected a final demand to waive the billions of dollars in fines imposed on the Turkish bank Zarrab and Mehtmet Hakan Attila used in the sanctions-evasion scheme. This story can therefore be boiled down to this: Attorneys argue for clemency on behalf of client and lose. That’s not even a compelling script for a Lifetime flick.

Giuliani expressed surprise that this was being made into a story at all, but he did give the NYT a casting suggestion:

He likened his efforts — which also included apprising Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, of what he wanted — to maneuvers during the Cold War to trade enemy spies for Americans detained overseas.

Mr. Giuliani questioned how his actions were any different. “It happened to be a good trade,” he said. “I expected to be a hero like in a Tom Hanks movie.”

Giuliani means Bridge of Spies, but unfortunately his Ukrainian adventures might more closely resemble Volunteers. Regardless, this story is much less than advertised, and not very honestly constructed, either.

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David Strom 3:31 PM on March 27, 2023