The Turkey hustle: How a pro-Trump Black group became unofficial lobbyists for Erdogan

Salon investigation: A sketchy nonprofit linked to the Trump campaign tried to orchestrate a massive trade deal

Published September 5, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Darrell Scott | Turkish Flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Darrell Scott | Turkish Flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This is the second part of a two-part series.

In the first article in this series, Salon explored how officials with a controversial pro-Trump nonprofit called the Urban Revitalization Coalition (URC) — which recently lost its tax-exempt charity status and made headlines early in 2020 with suspicious cash giveaways to Black voters — facilitated an off-the-books 2018 foreign influence campaign on behalf of powerful interests in Turkey.

The principal figures in this strange tale are Darrell Scott and Kareem Lanier, both prominent Trump surrogates in the Black community, who apparently used URC as a vehicle to, among other things, "solicit donations" from wealthy Turkish nationals. Some of these came by way of former MAGA-world star Rabia Kazan, a Turkish National and writer living in the U.S. who was brought on board strictly for that purpose.

This foreign influence campaign was apparently aimed at shaping U.S. policy in anticipation of an overarching trade deal with Turkey and also, perhaps, to be a lucrative endeavor in itself. 

This enterprise intersected with Turkey's widely publicized release of Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor whom the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been holding as a political prisoner. President Trump has repeatedly taken credit for Brunson's release, most recently in an awkward video segment aired during the Republican National Convention in which the president, speaking in person directly to Brunson, praised Erdogan — the autocratic leader who had held Brunson in captivity.

Imaginary "opportunity zones"

The URC's tax status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization allowed it to accept money without disclosing the source, including from foreign nationals. As a charity, however, no interested party or relative was legally allowed to benefit personally from its activities, and the URC was barred from conducting significant lobbying activity.

Multiple people familiar with the workings of the URC told Salon that it was clear that Scott and Lanier established the organization to do what they had frequently told Rabia Kazan they were prevented from doing within Michael Cohen's politically-focused predecessor organization, the National Diversity Coalition, which was effectively an arm of the Trump campaign. That is, to take in money. 

There's documentary evidence that the URC sought and received large sums of money in at least one instance. It received a $238,000 grant from America First Policies, a pro-Trump dark money organization affiliated with the super PAC America First Action. The URC received the grant in 2018, a few months after directing Kazan to seek financial contributions.

Because the URC never filed a tax return, however, it is impossible to know much money the group took in or how that money was spent.

The URC claims to advocate for attracting investment and human capital in disadvantaged American communities, most specifically in "Opportunity Zones," a term of art that the Trump administration has touted as a way to kick-start economic growth in predominantly Black neighborhoods and communities.

Opportunity Zones offer capital gains tax incentives to investors, primarily for real estate. At first, those incentives were seen as available to foreign nationals, until the IRS ruled otherwise in December of 2019.

Ali Akat, the Turkish envoy who met several times with Scott and Lanier, was supposedly discussing a comprehensive, multi-billion-dollar investment plan that would open opportunities for Turkish companies to gain manufacturing and packaging footholds by investing and building factories in Opportunity Zones.

The plan would have taken advantage of a loophole in U.S. tariffs. Akat told Turkish media that Turkish business owners could evade high duties if they exported unfinished products to the U.S., where those products would be assembled and packaged, ideally by Turkish companies in Opportunity Zones.

In an interview with the Daily Sabah — a pro-government Turkish newspaper — in March 2018, a month before his first U.S. visit, Akat said that he planned to meet with U.S. government officials in hopes of establishing a "Turkish organized industrial zone," distributed among various American states.

"After paying about 20 percent tax, a growth plan in the U.S. can be targeted with the remaining profit. More money is brought to Turkey," Akat said. "If you invest well in the U.S., you can find funding for your investment."

In a December interview with the Daily Sabah, Akat pointed to Godiva Chocolatier, a largely Turkish-owned company, as particularly promising. Americans wouldn't perceive Godiva as a foreign brand, he said, and it was therefore likely to be welcomed as an employer without "prejudice."

(Plastmore, Rabia Kazan's sister's company, counts Godiva and UNILEVER among its clients.)

The goal, Akat told the outlet, was to gather a number of Turkish companies who would promise to invest $1 million or more up front. These companies would then get first crack at manufacturing bids in U.S. markets, according to Akat's account of his meetings in Washington.

In a since-deleted Facebook post during Akat's U.S. trip in the spring of 2018, Republican strategist and XStrategies CEO Alexander Bruesewitz said that he discussed Godiva with Akat at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, mentioning Turkey's "desire to invest $12B in the US" and create 25,000 jobs.

According to Akat, who spoke with Turkish media on his return from the U.S., he also met with Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of commerce under George W. Bush. Akat was also photographed in the U.S. Capitol with three Republican congressmen, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas and Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and in the Trump International Hotel with billionaire Tom Barrack, a close friend of the president, and Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and a campaign adviser.

(Salon was able to access and translate the lengthy article about Akat's U.S. trip and gathered screenshots of some passages, but the original page itself is currently inaccessible, as is the parent site, Online Eksen. Salon has made available a rough translation.)

In reference to Tom Barrack, Akat told Turkish press, "I said that we are in the US in relation to the project. He stated that he would support us at the White House, Donald J. Trump and financial institutions in the USA. We will start official contacts with him."

Akat told the Turkish outlet that Scott took him to Republican National Committee headquarters, where he was photographed giving an address, and the White House. Here is a rough translation of the relevant passage:

During the meetings with Darrell Scott, he supported the project warmly. He forwarded our project to Donald J. Trump, his colleagues and family. He took me to the Republican headquarters first. I had the opportunity to explain the project there, and it was liked by everyone. Then he took me to the White House, based on the seriousness of the matter. We had contacts in the White House. We had meetings with Donald J. Trump's special assistants and assistants (Andrew Giuliani, Clayon T. Henson, Ronny L. Jackson, Jennifer S. Korn and Alexandra E. Veletsis). We would like the White House to support us seriously about our project, because it will provide employment to the United States and this direction is very valuable to them, and both investors and Turkey have expressed that they see benefits this project will provide the United States.

Akat also says he discussed the policy proposal with a number of lobbyists in the U.S., such as Sean Mulvaney, at the time a lobbyist for Procter & Gamble. He also praised Reps. Wilson and Sessions and their support for a trade deal.

White House spokesperson Sarah Matthews told Salon, "This story is completely false. No meeting or policy discussions ever took place."

The Turkish article included a photograph of Akat and Darrell Scott reviewing a thick binder together in a conference room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House, according to people familiar with the building. The building hosts most of the White House staff.

But these talks with Turkey stalled during the summer of 2018, while the Trump administration was negotiating the release of Andrew Brunson, the American evangelical pastor who had been held in a Turkish prison for almost two years. Tensions between the two nations escalated throughout that year, but Turkey finally released Brunson on Oct. 13, 2018, not long after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

Vice President Mike Pence and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke led the negotiations for Brunson that summer. At one point, Turkish President Erdogan reportedly proposed trading Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish dissident scholar and cleric who now lives in Pennsylvania. (Two years earlier, Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, had reportedly been implicated in a scheme to kidnap Gülen and return him to Turkey; Kazan appears in a photograph with Flynn, viewable here, but denies having any connections to the Gülenist movement.) Vice President Pence, however, has received political donations from Gülen-linked citizens in the U.S., one of whom has lobbied Pence on Gülen's behalf.

In a WhatsApp message obtained by Salon, an Erdogan aide who has traveled with him to the United States described Brunson's release as a mutual "gift" from Turkey.

On the day of Brunson's release from captivity, Trump tweeted, "There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don't make deals for hostages. There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!"

One day later, Akat told a Turkish-American outlet that 15 Turkish companies were ready to push ahead with business in the U.S. Around this time, Darrell Scott publicized his trips aboard Air Force One and White House visits in his URC capacity, as he and URC co-chair Kareem Lanier worked directly with Trump and advisers including Jared Kushner (whom Scott calls "J-Rock,") on what would become the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, effected in an executive order that December. Scott's visits included his evening watching the midterm election returns with Trump in the White House.

The day before Scott and Trump watched the election, Trump exempted Turkey from energy sanctions that his administration had slapped on Iran in November. This was sharply criticized by some U.S. officials, who saw the move as capitulation to Erdogan's strong-arm tactics — especially as negotiations related to Halkbank, a Turkish financial institution that is now under federal investigation for evading Iranian sanctions.

As the Gülen scenario and Khashoggi murder suggests, this situation had become incredibly complex, and the deep and often contradictory geopolitical mechanics at work would not have been easy for someone in Scott's position to navigate.

For instance, Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had at one point represented a Turkish gold trader named Reza Zarrab, who worked out of Trump Tower in Istanbul and led the alleged Halkbank conspiracy. Zarrab, and perhaps related pressure from Erdogan, was reportedly a principal reason for President Trump's abrupt 2017 firing of Preet Bharara, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

That incident hit hard in Turkey, as well. "The Zarrab scandal was the bombshell that destroyed Turkish democracy," as Turkish expatriate journalist and editor Abdulhamit Bilici described it to Salon.

Up to that point, Erdogan had been defiant about those energy sanctions — as one of Iran's top energy buyers, Turkey imported half its oil and one-fifth of its gas from Iran.

Less than two years later, Turkey now imports far more energy from the U.S., and appears to be pivoting away from its previous dependence on Iran. Around the same time, however, the U.S. cut major military contracts with Turkey, and Turkey to Russia instead — although, more recently, the Turkish government and U.S. seem to be turning back to one another on those military contracts, in a way Akat himself had suggested in 2018:

If you think that if a Turkish manufacturer builds a similar part of its own production facility in America, if it produces an aircraft part, and if it makes its product certified to American standards, it may become able to sell billions of dollars of its own army to the American military market. So this is a great market.

On the same day Trump gave Turkey a pass on sanctions, Ferhan Ademhan — a wealthy Turkish industrialist and investor who also has ties to Akat, as well as to Kazan and, through her, Trump campaign surrogate and Pence ally Martha Boneta — posted on Facebook: "America has released 8 countries [from the sanctions] it applied to Iran. Our country has been released as well. We have been rid of this burden on behalf of our country [thumbs-up emoji]"

A few weeks later, Akat was back at the president's Washington hotel, posting photos of Trump and Giuliani as well as gifts from the White House.

Then, on Dec. 12, Trump signed an executive order establishing the White House Urban Revitalization and Opportunity Council. The order appends "opportunity zone" development to nearly every paragraph. Darrell Scott was present at the signing, and Trump singled him out for praise.

That day, the National Diversity Council — a group founded by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, where Scott and Lanier served as senior officials and Kazan sat on the advisory board — posted the news on Twitter, pointing out the irony that Cohen had been sentenced to prison the same day: "URGENT President Trump IMPORTANT Speech Signs Exec Order amid Cohen Sentenced 3 Years in Prison"

As outlined in Part One of this Salon investigation, the NDC turned on Cohen after the FBI raided his homes and offices, confiscating phones and hard drives.

A few weeks after the raids, NDC director Bruce Levell, who Kazan says had shaken her down for $1,000, expressed concern to Kazan in a text message, obtained by Salon: "Trust me. Don't talk to anybody about NDCTrump. Delete. Cohen under fire. Thanks."

On Dec. 23, after the Opportunity and Revitalization Council had been officially created, Trump tweeted about "discussing heavily expanded Trade" with Erdogan, in the context of troop levels. Two days later, the Daily Sabah — which is owned by Erdogan's son-in-law — published another interview with Akat, indicating that the trade talks had advanced. He pegged the prospective economic package at $1 billion. The article, published on Christmas Day, was headlined, "Turkish-American bilateral trade expected to soar next year."

The following month Trump tweeted about trade policy with Turkey again, in the context of troop levels: "Also spoke about economic development between the U.S. & Turkey — great potential to substantially expand!"

There was no more discussion of a major trade deal with Turkey in the president's Twitter feed, and a comprehensive proposal never seems to have gained traction since. Trump did not tweet about Turkey again for a full nine months, and the next mention came when he acceded to Erdogan's demand to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, effectively abandoning Kurdish forces who had fought alongside Americans for years. 

Was all this illegal? Maybe

Though Turkish businesses don't appear to have made any investment in the Trump administration's "opportunity zones," Akat repeatedly alluded to the prospect, which would have given Turkish companies a manufacturing foothold in the U.S. while evading tariffs on fully-produced goods.

This effort — backed by Scott and Lanier at the URC, among others — would have entailed changes in U.S. trade policy to give Turkish manufacturing companies priorities in the United States, seemingly contradicting Trump's "America First" agenda.

Experts from CREW, the Campaign Legal Center and OpenSecrets told Salon that on its face this initiative would raise concerns about possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires Americans who lobby on behalf of foreign interests to register with the government.

While FARA has a carve-out for commercial representation, Brett Kappel, a top authority on campaign finance, lobbying and government ethics law, told Salon that it's not clear the exemption would have applied to Scott, Lanier and the URC, who appeared to be lobbying the White House, and possibly Congress — successfully or otherwise — to influence changes in U.S. policy.

"This really could be a FARA problem," Kappel said. "If they were engaging in lobbying activities to change government policy on behalf on foreign principals, that requires registration."

Kappel, and others, pointed out that the law has a loophole for certain commercial activity, that loophole would likely not apply here. From the National Law Review:

Not covered by the Commercial Exemption are activities "directed by a foreign government or political party" or that aim to "directly promote the public or political interests of the foreign government." In determining whether the Commercial Exemption applies, due diligence into whether the foreign principal is closely affiliated with a foreign government, or where the commercial interests are intertwined with sovereign government interests is necessary.

"In this case, it seems the goal was to change U.S. policy, and that activity would be something that FARA agents would be skeptical about," Kappel said.

Kappel points out that before Robert Mueller's investigation and numerous related reports during the Trump era revealed rampant abuse, FARA hadn't been strictly enforced. Mueller's work changed that, as is evident in the placement of former Mueller prosecutor Brandon Van Grack at the helm of the Justice Department's FARA division.

In a recent case, lawyers for a foreign government attended "regular meetings between Embassy officials and [that country]'s U.S. lobbyists where proposed legislation and legislative strategy are discussed," among other things. Van Grack advised the firm that it couldn't take advantage of FARA's exemption for legal work and needed to register.

In issuing that opinion, FARA attorney Matt Sanderson told Politico, the DOJ "took an exceedingly broad view of FARA's scope."

"This could cause more law firms, particularly in Washington, to reexamine whether their work could trigger FARA registration," Sanderson said.

"Almost every single FARA statistic has risen exponentially since 2016," Van Grack told Politico in September 2019, amid what was by then already a record year for FARA enforcement. He said that more foreign agents have registered and the DOJ has issued more advisory opinions to lawyers about when they need to register.

"The goal is not numeric," he said. "The goal, again, is compliance."

Noting this, Kappel concluded that the URC's activity would raise legal flags today whereas it might not have in a pre-Mueller world.

The URC might also face tax law liabilities. At one point the group was a tax-exempt 501c(3) nonprofit, which can accept donations, including from foreign nationals, without having to disclose sources. But because the URC apparently never filed a tax return, the IRS automatically revoked its tax-exempt status this May.

Scott told CNN that he hadn't known that the URC had lost its tax-exempt status until CNN contacted him. Kappel described this as "extremely strange," given that Scott hadn't filed any returns from the group in three years and the IRS had almost certainly sent him multiple notifications over that time.

Scott told CNN that he hadn't received any such notices because the URC had shut down during the pandemic, and he had shifted his focus to the Trump campaign.

That seems implausible, Kappel said, but it's unlikely the IRS will come after Scott. "Chances are next to zero," he said. "The IRS has extremely limited enforcement resources, and when they use them it's usually reserved for significant tax evasion or fraud."

During his time away from the URC, Scott has written and published a book about his experience in Trump's political world, "Nothing to Lose" — a reference to Trump's widely mocked 2016 campaign pitch to Black voters.

"He wanted to be Martin Luther King," Kazan said.

Cohen also has a book coming out, "Disloyal," which he says will delve into issues of race and reveal new details of the president's bigoted behavior, as witnessed by Cohen.

After federal investigators confiscated Cohen's devices, he began releasing tapes. One of them was a recorded conversation with Trump during the 2016 campaign, in which the two discussed hush money for a former Playboy model.

In that conversation, Cohen brought up Scott, who at the time was a campaign adviser. Trump apparently confused him with another Black pastor on his campaign, Mark Burns.

About a minute into the recording, Trump tells Cohen, "Your guy is a good guy."

"Who, Pastor Scott?" Cohen asks.

Trump then asks Cohen if the campaign can still "use" him, but doesn't specify who he means. Cohen, realizing that Trump might have been referring to Burns instead, suggests his name.

However, the two still seem confused — Trump mentions Scott's name again, and asks the question: "What's, what's happening? Can we use him anymore?"

"No, no," says Cohen.

Two years later, Trump and Scott were together in the White House for the signing of the executive order that Scott had worked so hard for over that last year, creating the Opportunity and Revitalization Council.

At the signing ceremony, Trump called on Scott by name. Here is the official White House transcript:

TRUMP: Pastor Darrell Scott, a friend of mine for a long time. Where's Darrell?

PASTOR SCOTT: Right here. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Hi, Darrell. Darrell. Bishop Harry Jackson — Harry, that's great. And local officials from Baltimore, Maryland; Norfolk, Virginia; and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Trump then launched into his prepared remarks.

Darrell Scott and Bruce Levell did not reply to Salon's specific questions. (In response to the first article in this series, Scott posted and then deleted a tweet reading, "Lie from the pit of hell!!!") Michael Cohen was not available for comment. TABA-AmCham did not reply to questions. Ali Akat did not respond to Salon's questions in the course of writing this article.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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