By Bryant Harris September 13, 2018
Turkey's US campaign against Fethullah Gulen, the alleged mastermind of the 2016 coup, has backfired spectacularly, placing Ankara in the crosshairs of Congress and the Trump administration.
The Turkish government spent more than $5.6 million last year lobbying the United States in part to extradite the exiled cleric and close down his network of charter schools, with little to show for it. Instead, Ankara's unconvincing attempt to link imprisoned US pastor Andrew Brunson to Gulen and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has sunk the bilateral relationship to new lows, prompting Trump to sanction a NATO ally for the first time.
"The Turks were well on notice that the clock had run out and that it was time for Pastor Brunson to be returned," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Aug. 2, the day after the Treasury Department announced sanctions against two Turkish Cabinet ministers. "I hope they'll see this for what it is: a demonstration that we're very serious."
A week later, Trump announced that he had authorized a doubling of steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey after a Turkish delegation failed to reach an agreement on Brunson's release. Turkey lodged a complaint against the additional duties at the World Trade Organization Aug. 20.
The sanctions cap a disastrous run for bilateral relations as the United States runs out of patience with Turkey's authoritarian turn and its pending purchase of Russian military hardware.
Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation intended to bar key international financial institutions from propping up Turkey's ailing economy unless Ankara releases incarcerated US citizens as well as Turks locally employed by US missions. Pending foreign aid spending legislation in the Senate would also ban Turkish officials involved in the detention of US citizens from entering the United States.
In addition, Turkey critics have tried to kick the country out of the coproduction program for the F-35 fighter jet over Turkey's stated intention to buy Russia's S-400 missile defense system. While the provision faced opposition from lawmakers in Texas, where Lockheed Martin produces F-35s, compromise language in the final annual defense bill prohibits the transfer of the jets to Ankara until the Pentagon submits a report assessing the impact of a "significant change" in Turkey's participation in the program.
The congressional pushback has been encouraged by the Armenian American community, which has long advocated for the United States to recognize the Ottoman-era massacre of more than 1 million Armenians as a genocide. The Armenian Assembly of America notably spent $20,000 this year lobbying Congress regarding Brunson's detention as well as the S-400 and F-35 provisions in the defense bill.
Nevertheless, Ankara assumed control of the first F-35 of what is meant to be a 100-plane, $10 billion-order at a US air force base in June, even though the jet fighter is not expected to physically arrive in Turkey until next year. And the Trump administration so far is maintaining military training and border security assistance, with the State Department's $3.7 million request for Fiscal Year 2019 calling Turkey a "close partner in contributing to US national security interests in the Levant and across the broader Middle East."
The recent setbacks come despite a surge in lobbying, which almost doubled last year from less than $3 million in 2016. Turkey's growing roster of registered agents includes at least 10 former lawmakers of both parties, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Daschle has offered a line to the Democrats on Capitol Hill through his firm's subcontract with Greenberg Traurig, which raked in $1.7 million from Turkey last year. Florida-based Ballard Partners, Trump's personal lobbying firm for decades before he became president, took in another $1.1 million.
Lobbying disclosures indicate that Ballard Partners was in frequent contact with high-level State Department officials as the United States and Turkey hammered out an agreement to jointly patrol Manbij in northern Syria in exchange for the withdrawal of the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, which Ankara considers a terrorist group. Since December, both firms have also met with lawmakers and staff from the committees involved in the growing bipartisan push to sanction Turkey.
In order to discredit Gulen and his chain of charter schools throughout the United States, Turkey also paid the law firm Amsterdam & Partners $500,000 in 2017.
Separately, Louette Ragusa, the operations director for the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), a pro-Ankara nonprofit, registered the Bosnian American Political Action Committee (PAC) with the Federal Election Commission in August after registering Macedonia PAC earlier this year. Ragusa told Al-Monitor that the PACs are unrelated to the TCA or Turkish issues.
"They're independent organizations who would like to raise money legally through their ethnic communities to give to candidates," she said.
Gulen loyalists have pushed back, dropping nearly $900,000 last year to defend themselves after spending a mere $50,000 in 2016. The Washington Diplomacy Group, which represents pro-Gulen groups, terminated most of its clients in April, fueling speculation that the movement may have run out of money following a crackdown in Turkey.
Gulen and Brunson aren't the only ones caught up in the US-Turkish drama.
A New York judge in May sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the former deputy CEO of Turkey's state-run Halkbank, to 32 months in prison for his role in an Iran sanctions busting scheme that could result in retaliatory fines against the Turkish bank. Halkbank hired McGinn and Company and Ballard in 2017 to represent its interests, paying the latter $758,000 last year.
Ballard personally lobbied the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) as the Trump administration moved ahead with steel tariffs against Turkey earlier this year, cutting Turkish steel exports to the United States in half. And former Gov. George Pataki, R-N.Y., has been representing steel pipe giant Borusan Mannesmann since March regarding the tariffs via his Pataki-Cahill Group.
Additionally, the Turkey-US Business Council (TAIK) hired Mercury Public Affairs in February, notably retaining the services of Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign staffer who joined the firm after the president's inauguration.
Notably, TAIK's former chairman, Ekim Alptekin, hired former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to lobby while he was still part of the Trump campaign. Flynn failed to register the required lobbying disclosures with the Justice Department at the time and has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding his contacts with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into 2016 election interference.
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