With Donald Trump’s clearly illegal attempt to recruit Ukraine in his efforts to investigate the Biden family and again seek the prohibited assistance of a foreign government in his election campaign now out in the open, tales of past attempts at blatantly corrupt and unlawful requests have begun to surface from former administration officials.
Blomberg News reported today about a 2017 Oval Office meeting where the president pushed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to try to offer a rationale to the Justice Department to drop a criminal investigation of one of his attorney Rudy Giuliani’s clients, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader named Reza Zarrab, citing three people familiar with the meeting as its sources.
Tillerson, serving in a phase of the Trump administration when adults were still generally present in the room during meetings, reportedly refused to follow the President’s bidding, objecting to illegally interfering in an ongoing Justice Department investigation. His response — and those of others in the meeting allegedly shocked by Trump’s request — creates an odd longing for the earlier days of the administration when there were still people in the White House willing to stand up to the president and curtail his most impeachable impulses.
The Secretary of State brought his objections to then-Chief of Staff John Kelly, speaking to him in the hallway right outside the scene of the crime in the Oval Office and reiterating the fact that what Trump was asking him to do was patently illegal.
No information about this incident has previously been disclosed, and, given the current ongoing impeachment investigation of the president by the House of Representatives, none of the officials who disclosed the story were willing to disclose their identities for fear of retaliation. Neither the White House, Mr. Tillerson, nor General Kelly were willing to comment to Bloomberg about the story. Another source says that the Department of Justice never reached the stage of considering the abandonment of the criminal investigation.
According to Bloomberg News:
“Zarrab was being prosecuted in federal court in New York at the time on charges of evading U.S. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. He had hired former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Giuliani, who has said he reached out repeatedly to U.S. officials to seek a diplomatic solution for his client outside the courts.”
If the story is indeed true, it is yet another example of Trump’s circumvention of normal political and legal channels to achieve his aims.
Still, it’s not certain if Trump was trying to benefit Giuliani — a long-time friend who had yet to be hired by Trump as his personal attorney at the time of the request — and his client or Turkish President Recep Erdoğan — who had been advocating for the U.S. to drop the investigation — with his attempt at undermining the criminal probe. Moreover, it is also unclear whether the president knew that his request crossed legal lines or if he was merely testing the limits of his powers and the willingness of his subordinates to follow his dictates no matter how improper.
Bloomberg News asked Giuliani about the case in an interview earlier this month and the former New York mayor gave conflicting answers, initially denying that he ever spoke to Trump about Zarrab’s case, but later admitting that perhaps he might have mentioned it as he tried to arrange a deal to trade the fates of Zarrab and Andrew Brunson, an American minister who was being held in a Turkish prison.
“Suppose I did talk to Trump about it — so what? I was a private lawyer at the time,” Giuliani said. “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe at some point I dropped his name in a conversation. Or maybe one of his people talked to him about it because I was trying to do a prisoner swap.”
Giuliani admitted bringing up the case to the State Department but refused to disclose whether he ever discussed the issue directly with Secretary Tillerson.
“You have no right to know that,” he told Bloomberg News.
This latest disclosure of Trump’s skirting his legal requirements should come as no surprise given his overall contempt for the rule of law as it applies to his own behavior. Tillerson has already publicly disclosed that the president frequently requested that he take actions that were either illegal or would violate carefully negotiated international agreements.
“So often, the president would say ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President I understand what you want to do but you can’t do it that way,”’ Tillerson said in an interview last year. “It violates the law, it violates treaty you know and he just, he got really frustrated when we’d have those conversations.”
As for Giuliani’s client Mr. Zarrab, he eventually pleaded guilty to helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions and testified against an official at a state-owned Turkish bank while accusing President Erdoğan of knowing about and supporting the scheme to help Iran.
The Turkish government has denied the charges and has never faced any repercussions from their alleged involvement in the sanction evasion plan. Instead, President Trump seems to be willing to reverse decades of U.S. foreign policy toward our Kurdish allies in order to keep President Erdoğan happy.
One can only speculate about what other stories former Secretary Tillerson could tell about Trump’s requests to commit other illegal acts. We’ll simply have to wait for testimony at the impeachment — or for Tillerson’s inevitable tell-all book — to learn the details of those other potential felonies.
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Original reporting by Nick Wadhams, Saleha Mohsin, and Stephanie Baker at Bloomberg News.