It was the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration and, over lunch at Washington’s Watergate Hotel, a foreign government was trying to break into the new U.S. administration.
Meeting for the first time to talk business were Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Brian Ballard, a powerful lobbyist then serving as vice chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee.
Also present were the two men who set up the meeting. One was Lev Parnas, a colorful Florida businessman whose backchannel dealings in Ukraine would, nearly three years later, lead to Trump’s impeachment. The other was Mübariz Mansimov, a Turkish-Azerbaijani shipping magnate now on trial in Turkey on terrorism charges.
The meeting on January 19, 2017, which has never before been disclosed, was key to building a close relationship between the administrations of Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It has perhaps been the most successful foreign lobbying effort of the Trump presidency — no mean feat for an administration mired from the beginning in foreign influence scandals.
On the agenda were what would become two multi-million-dollar contracts to lobby for Turkey and its Islamist leader, Erdoğan, in the U.S. For Parnas, one of the middlemen, it also represented a potential payday. In response to reporters’ questions, Ballard Partners said in a statement that lobbying was not discussed at the Watergate meeting.
“There was a lot of bodyguards, Turkish bodyguards,” Parnas recalled in an interview. “It was in a little restaurant. We went in. [Çavuşoğlu] was sitting in the restaurant with a couple of other Turkish dignitaries”.
“Mübariz introduced Brian Ballard as ‘Trump’s number one guy,’” Parnas said of the top Trump fundraiser from Florida, whom Politico dubbed “The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”
The warm relationship that followed would see Trump administration officials, and the president himself, make decisions that baffled advisers who believed they put Erdoğan’s interests over America’s.
In a recent memoir, Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, described a “bromance” between the two leaders.
But behind that bromance is a deeper story — one that involves Russia-linked oligarchs, alleged crooks, and key players in Trump’s Ukraine impeachment scandal, an investigation by OCCRP, Courthouse News Service and NBC News has found.
Read more: OCCRP