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Brookings Institution Senior Fellow On Michael Flynn's Contacts With Turkey

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So as Carrie mentioned, Michael Flynn could be called to testify against his former business associates who are now accused of violating foreign lobbying rules. The indictment unsealed yesterday accuses the two men of covertly trying to help Turkey persuade the U.S. to extradite a Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who now lives in Pennsylvania. Flynn's firm allegedly received a half a million dollars to help sway public opinion against Gulen, including writing an op-ed and producing a documentary.

So far, the U.S. has refused to extradite Gulen. And for more on the long-running story about this Turkish cleric, we're joined in the studio now by Omer Taspinar of the Brookings Institution. Welcome.

OMER TASPINAR: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So this indictment lays out the lengths Turkey will seemingly go to to get Gulen back in the country. Why? Why do they care so intensely?

TASPINAR: Well, in the eyes of the Turkish government and, most importantly, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Fethullah Gulen is the mastermind of the failed coup in the summer of 2016. However, many European governments and, most importantly, the U.S. government has failed to see concrete evidence, a kind of smoking gun linking Fethullah Gulen directly to the coup.

CHANG: And as far as evidence goes, the Justice Department says that this evidence Turkey has sent over just doesn't meet the standard for extradition. But the Trump administration has suggested it would take a look at possibly returning Gulen to Turkey anyway. How can the Trump administration even do that? What are the avenues to do that beyond extradition?

TASPINAR: I think in each phone conversations between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there's so much pressure coming from Erdogan that Mr. Trump feels in a way obliged to say, I'll take a look into this. And each time he says, I'll take a look into this, he has probably advisers at the White House who are raising the issue with the Justice Department. And this becomes news in the United States that there is maybe a possible avenue for extradition. And the Turkish press also has its hopes high that maybe something is happening. But the fact of the matter remains that the Justice Department lacks clear evidence.

CHANG: Right.

TASPINAR: And there is nothing new produced by Turkey in the last year or so in terms of implicating Fethullah Gulen. But this has become more of a political issue than a legal one at this point.

CHANG: Why does the Trump administration have an interest in placating the Turkish government at all right now?

TASPINAR: Well, it started I think with Mike Flynn establishing a business connection with this Turkish gentleman who, it turns out, was working on behalf of the Turkish government. And I think Trump has some business interests in Turkey, and he wanted from the get-go to have good relations with Turkey's strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There was an ongoing relationship, and some people close to Erdogan convinced Erdogan that Trump would be a better choice than Hillary Clinton, who obviously was not perceived as someone who would take a new approach to the Fethullah Gulen issue or to the other big problem that Turkey has with the United States, which is support for the Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS. So Trump was perceived by the Turkish government as a more promising candidate, and Trump wanted to actually nurture his relationship with the president of Turkey for - in the long run for business deals.

CHANG: Is the Turkish government still actively trying to influence the U.S. to give up Gulen behind the scenes, or are Turkish officials going through more official channels now?

TASPINAR: Turkish officials are - I think in all their conversations with the Justice Department, the White House or the State Department are bringing up the issue. However, it has been two years since the first demand was made. And I think there is diminishing hopes that this will ever happen. This is why I think Turkey now is after a longer list of 80 people who are linked to the Gulen movement and their extradition as an alternative to Fethullah Gulen. And that seems like a more realistic target.

CHANG: Omer Taspinar of the Brookings Institution, thank you so much for coming in today.

TASPINAR: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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