Matt Whitaker’s unfailing loyalty to Donald Trump apparently extended to helping the president quash a criminal investigation of a foreign bank, according to an explosive new story by Eric Lipton and Benjamin Weiser in the New York Times.
While serving (unconstitutionally) as acting U.S. attorney general after the 2018 election, Whitaker blocked a probe of Halkbank, “a state-owned Turkish bank suspected of violating U.S. sanctions law by funneling billions of dollars of gold and cash to Iran.”
Lipton and Weiser recount several examples of Justice Department officials interfering with the work of then U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, who was the top prosecutor in the Southern District of New York until Trump removed him this summer. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “repeatedly pressed Mr. Trump in a series of conversations in November and December 2018 to resolve the Halkbank matter.”
Manhattan prosecutors laid out the grounds for criminal charges against Halkbank in a memo that then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein found convincing.
Mr. Rosenstein urged Mr. Berman to come to Washington to present the Southern District’s argument to Mr. Whitaker. The goal was not to file charges immediately against the bank. Instead, the plan was to give the Southern District more leverage to squeeze Halkbank to accept a deferred prosecution agreement that included an admission of wrongdoing.
But Mr. Whitaker, who declined requests for comment, had a longstanding disdain for the Southern District, which has been called the Sovereign District for the way it guards its independence from Washington. In a book published this year, Mr. Whitaker wrote that the Southern District always “dreamed up new ways to torment President Trump throughout my tenure at the Department of Justice.”
Mr. Berman arrived at the Justice Department headquarters and reported to Mr. Rosenstein’s office. But shortly before the meeting was to begin, Mr. Rosenstein was summoned to Mr. Whitaker’s office without Mr. Berman.
Mr. Whitaker told Mr. Rosenstein that he did not want the case to move forward, and that he wanted the matter shut down, according to lawyers involved in the investigation. Mr. Whitaker cited concern that charges against the bank might result in a threat to U.S. forces in Syria, a suggestion that others in the department said they found hard to understand.
Justice Department officials decided to ignore Mr. Whitaker’s edict, concluding that they most likely would outlast Mr. Whitaker in the department, since he was serving on an acting basis. They did not see appeasing Mr. Erdogan as sufficient justification for closing the investigation.
Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton discussed the episode with the New York Times. He recalled that in mid-December 2018,
Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan spoke by phone. The president began by assuring Mr. Erdogan that the government and Halkbank were close to a resolution, and Mr. Erdogan expressed his appreciation, according to Mr. Bolton. […]
Mr. Trump asked Mr. Bolton to speak with Mr. Whitaker, the acting attorney general at the time, about the case — a move Mr. Bolton said he did not make, although he added that he did not know if someone else from the White House did.
Whitaker’s conduct at the Justice Department warrants further investigation by Iowa reporters, especially if he runs for office here again. Whitaker competed for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in 2014 and is seen as a likely candidate for Senate in 2022, if Senator Chuck Grassley retires.
Top photo: Matt Whitaker’s Facebook profile picture.