The Ukraine phone call wasn't the first time Trump tried to use his position to allegedly demand a personal favor.
Long before he ever spoke with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and pressured him to investigate a political rival, Donald Trump was already engaged in similar behavior, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.
According to the outlet, back in 2017, Trump allegedly pressured then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to lean on the Justice Department on behalf of one of Rudy Giuliani's clients.
That client, Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, was facing criminal charges for allegedly evading American sanctions against Iran to the tune of millions. Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, had filed charges against Zarrab for "facilitat[ing] millions of dollars worth of transactions on behalf of Iran ... through a global network of companies located in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates."
Zarrab was also accused of bribing top Turkish officials to help him.
However, Zarrab had friends in high places. When he was arrested in 2016, he hired former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and then-U.S. Attorney Giuliani, now Trump's personal attorney to defend him. Zarrab also got Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lobby the Obama administration to get him released, to no avail.
Then, Trump took office. Suddenly, Zarrab had a more sympathetic ear.
It's not clear if Giuliani first broached the topic with Trump or how Trump found out about it. Giuliani initially told Bloomberg that he never brought up Zarrab with Trump, before later reversing course and suggesting he did.
"Suppose I did talk to Trump about it -- so what? I was a private lawyer at the time," he said in a phone interview this month. "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."
According to Bloomberg, the arrangement to which Giuliani was referring was a prisoner swap of Zarrab for Andrew Brunson, an American pastor jailed in Turkey. Brunson was released from the Turkish prison in 2018.
(It isn't clear how Rudy Giuliani, private attorney working for a private client, could do a prisoner swap with a sovereign nation, given that such a move would, by definition, require him to be acting on behalf of the United States.)
Whatever the case, in the second half of 2017, not long after taking office, Trump turned to Tillerson for help with Giuliani's client.
The request came during a meeting in the Oval Office, according to three people with knowledge of the conversation.
Tillerson reportedly declined to help, saying that such a move would mean interfering in an ongoing Justice Department investigation. Others in the Oval Office at the time were "shocked by the request," the three sources noted.
Tillerson immediately told then-Chief of Staff John Kelly about his exchange with Trump "in a hallway conversation just outside the Oval Office," Bloomberg reported. He emphasized "that the request would be illegal."
Kelly appears not to have acted on the request.
In the end, it doesn't appear that any of Trump and Giuliani's alleged pressure worked. In late 2017, Zarrab pleaded guilty, testifying against the head of international banking at the state-owned Halkbank, who was later convicted of helping Iran "evade economic sanctions on billions of dollars of oil revenue," according to Bloomberg.
As the outlet notes, the affair has pushed back into the spotlight Trump's penchant for using his office to promise and extract personal favors. More recently he was criticized for using that office to request Ukrainian officials do him a "favor" and investigate a political rival, Joe Biden.
That request has since launched a House impeachment inquiry. Trump, meanwhile, claims all his actions thus far, in relation to foreign leaders, have been above board.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.