ISTANBUL — Behind President Donald Trump’s accommodating attitude toward Turkey is an unusual back channel: a trio of sons-in-law who married into power and now play key roles in connecting Ankara with Washington.
One, Turkey’s finance minister, is the son-in-law of its strongman president and oversees his country’s relationship with the United States.
Another is the son-in-law of a Turkish tycoon and became a business partner to the Trump Organization. Now he advocates for Turkey with the Trump administration.
And the third is Jared Kushner, who as the son-in-law of and senior adviser to Trump has a vague if expansive foreign policy portfolio.
Operating both individually and in tandem, the three men have developed an informal, next-generation line of communication between Trump and his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who only weeks after his military incursion into northern Syria is scheduled to visit the White House on Wednesday.
The ties among the three men show how informal and often-unseen connections between the two presidents have helped shape U.S. policy in a volatile part of the world.
Erdogan predicted in a television interview this year that a private dialogue between Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and finance minister, and Kushner would soon put “back on track” the vexed relations between Washington and Ankara.
Trump twice surprised his own advisers by agreeing during phone calls with Erdogan to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria — and the second time, in early October, he followed through, clearing the way for Turkish forces to attack a U.S.-backed militia there.
Critics say the Trump administration has balked at aggressively punishing a state-owned Turkish bank for evading American sanctions against Iran. Trump has also deferred legally mandated sanctions against Turkey, a member of the NATO, for installing Russian missile defense systems.
NATO, for installing Russian missile defense systems. And critics say the Trump administration has also balked at aggressively punishing a state-owned Turkish bank for evading U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Erdogan has deployed both his own son-in-law and Trump’s Turkish business partner, Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, as emissaries to the administration, sometimes through Kushner, according to Turkish officials and public records.
In April, for example, Albayrak had come to Washington for a conference organized by Yalcindag at the Trump International Hotel. And in the middle of the event, Kushner summoned Albayrak to an impromptu meeting in the Oval Office, where Albayrak successfully pressed Trump to hold back the sanctions against Turkey for buying Russian weapons.
Both leaders appear to favor family or business connections as back channels, several advisers to Erdogan said, in part because both share a suspicion that the agencies of their own governments may be conspiring against them.
Trump Towers Rise in Istanbul
Trump’s ties to Turkey go back more than a decade, beginning with an invitation from Yalcindag to do business in Istanbul.
Yalcindag’s father-in-law, tycoon Aydin Dogan, had set out to build two skyscrapers and a shopping mall. Yalcindag, now 55, convinced him that the family company should find an international partner. He flew to New York to sell Trump on lending his name to the Istanbul towers.
The skyscrapers, which opened in 2012 as Trump Towers Istanbul, pay the Trump Organization only a licensing fee, according to Trump’s financial disclosure forms.
But the buildings were the first residential and commercial towers in Europe to hang the Trump name, and both families considered them a success.
Trump, as he ran for president, acknowledged that his personal relationships influenced his view of Turkey.
“I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said in a radio interview in 2015.
Erdogan’s advisers assumed Trump would lose in 2016. But Yalcindag flew 10 hours to be with Trump and his family at the New York Hilton Midtown while the votes were counted.
Frantic to reach the new president-elect the next day, the Turkish Embassy in Washington eventually turned in desperation to Yalcindag for the telephone number of Trump headquarters — beginning his new role as a go-between for Ankara.
On the strength of his ties to the Trump family, Erdogan also named Yalcindag to a new role as chairman of a state-run business group that lobbies Washington on behalf of Ankara.
The group’s previous chairman, Ekim Alptekin, had run afoul of American prosecutors by paying more than $500,000 to the consulting firm of retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who went on to become Trump’s first national security adviser.
Taking over as the face of the state-sponsored Turkey-U.S. Business Council after Trump’s election, Yalcindag began to travel regularly to Washington. The council for the first time held its annual conferences at the Trump hotel in Washington.
During a visit this year, Yalcindag also made stops on Capitol Hill and at the State Department.
In one State Department meeting, according to a person present, his agenda included pushing for the extradition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Erdogan of promoting the 2016 coup attempt against him; pleading for the United States to quietly settle the sanctions case against the Turkish bank with a limited fine; arguing for the sale of Patriot missiles to reduce Turkey’s need for Russian alternatives; and making the case for a Turkish takeover of northern Syria.
‘The Groom’ Rises to Power
The son of a journalist close to Erdogan, Albayrak lived in New York early in his career. He earned a business degree at Pace University while working for the U.S. division of one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates, Calik Holding.
He married the president’s daughter Esra in 2004, and he was named chief executive of Calik three years later.
By 2015, Erdogan helped Albayrak, then 37, to win a seat in Parliament and named him energy minister. But Albayrak’s influence rose even more rapidly after a faction of military leaders attempted a coup against Erdogan in July 2016.
After surviving the coup attempt, Erdogan responded by purging perceived enemies and silencing dissent.
Albayrak acquired so much clout that some, including Cabinet members, described him as a shadow premier.
He helped orchestrate a takeover of a large portion of the Turkish news media. At the same time, Albayrak also took primary control over relations with Washington.
Among his missions was to seek the extradition of Gulen. In September of that year, Albayrak met with Flynn in New York to discuss a campaign to seek Gulen’s extradition to Turkey. That effort led to criminal charges against two others in the meeting, Flynn and Alptekin.
The Justice Department at the same time was investigating the second-largest Turkish state bank, Halkbank, for a multiyear effort to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Erdogan and Albayrak, according to information the U.S. investigators were then assembling, personally approved the sanctions-evasion scheme even after officials in the United States had arrested a Turkish-Iranian gold trader in the matter. (Turkish officials say their government had publicly dismissed the sanctions on Iran as U.S. policy that was not binding on Turkey.)
As the prosecution ramped up, Albayrak pressed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to not impose new penalties on Halkbank.
Erdogan urged Trump to shut down the investigation. For much of 2019, the bank negotiated with the Justice Department to avoid further charges, an effort that ended in October when the bank was indicted.
A Visit to the Oval Office
As energy minister, Albayrak had promoted closer economic ties to Israel, and by 2018, he had visited the White House to talk with Kushner about his plans for Middle East peace.
They met again in February in Ankara. Kushner was on his first official visit to discuss the Middle East with Erdogan and Albayrak.
By April, relations had grown strained again, in part over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian missile defense systems. And Erdogan was increasingly frustrated with the U.S. role in northern Syria, where a small U.S. military force was protecting a Kurdish-led militia.
Against that backdrop, the three sons-in-law were set to attend a conference in April in Washington of the state-sponsored business group led by Yalcindag.
Albayrak had been set to meet with Mnuchin, but Kushner arranged for all three to join Trump in the Oval Office. Albayrak told Turkish journalists Trump had shown an “understanding perspective” on the question of the Russian missiles.
When the first Russian missiles arrived in Turkey in July, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a bipartisan statement urging Trump “to fully implement sanctions as required by law.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed confidence sanctions were coming.
But a spokesman for Erdogan told the Turkish news media that after the Oval Office meeting with Albayrak, Trump had committed to using “the power that he has to intervene on that issue” and to holding off on the sanctions.
By late July, Trump appeared to deliver on that commitment.
“We have a complicated situation,” Trump told reporters, repeating Erdogan’s rationale that under the Obama administration Turkey “was not allowed” to buy the U.S.-made Patriots instead of the Russian version.
Then, during a phone call Oct. 6, Trump unexpectedly acceded once again to the wishes of the Turkish president by agreeing to remove American troops from northern Syria, making way for the Turkish incursion against the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces.
Faced with a domestic backlash, Trump threatened at one point to “destroy” Turkey’s economy, then announced but withdrew a new round of sanctions, and finally invited Erdogan to the White House.
When Erdogan lands in Washington this week, his son-in-law will be with him. Yalcindag is there already.