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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

For the U.S., 'irregular channels' could make Turkey another Ukraine

President Donald Trump with Turkish President Recep Tayyip

President Donald Trump with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

Last week William Taylor, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, cited "highly irregular channels" in U.S. policymaking.

The phrase might also fit the Trump administration's conduct in Turkey.

For starters, Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was paid to represent interests important to the Ankara regime up until his government appointment.

This wasn't shocking by itself. After all, Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort famously made big bucks working for the head of a pro-Russia faction in Ukraine.

Flynn had supported President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's request to deport a Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan blamed for a 2016 attempt to overthrow him.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, now embroiled in the Ukraine scandal and under federal investigation, has also made himself an off-payroll, behind-the-scenes player in Turkey.

Giuliani and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey met in 2017 with Erdogan while representing a criminal defendant — Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab.

Mukasey said they were trying to negotiate a "state-to-state resolution" of the case in which Zarrab had been accused of helping, of all things, evade sanctions against Iran.

That sounds like an unusual mission for people outside the State Department, the Justice Department, or the CIA. But in Trump's world, it jives with Giuliani's subsequent intervention to remove Marie Yovanovitch as Ukraine ambassador.

Trump reportedly pressed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help get the Justice Department to drop the prosecution. Tillerson refused, saying it would interfere with a criminal investigation, Bloomberg News reported recently.

And as with the president's famous July 25 "do us a favor" call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump's request on Zarrab appalled key White House advisers.

In the Ukraine affair, Trump sought foreign action against his domestic foes. In the Turkey talks, Erdogan sought U.S. action against his own domestic foes.

The self-serving political gambits of both presidents remain works in progress.

Further complicating the picture: The Trump family has business interests in Turkey with the potential to affect White House behavior. 

One of Trump's personal channels to Turkey includes his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Erdogan has his son-in-law Berat Albayrak serving as his finance minister.

And Mehmet Ali Yalçindağ, the son-in-law of a Turkish tycoon, has partnered with the Trump Organization, which has a Trump Tower project in Ankara.

In Turkey, as in Ukraine, the United States has serious decisions to make on matters of weapons and war.

For better or worse, Trump recently had the U.S. military accommodate Erdogan's latest move into Syria. This vexed Republican and Democratic members of Congress, as did the president's temporary delay of military aid to Ukraine.

The movement of U.S. troops out of Erdogan's way in Syria was preceded by a key phone call between him and Trump that for all we know Trump would defend as "perfect" like his chats with Zelensky.

"Irregular channels" might apply to the way the White House conducts much of its business overseas. Regarding Ukraine, those channels have been a recipe for scandal.

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