Informal relationships between family members help explain the course of diplomacy between the White House and Turkey’s leader.
ISTANBUL — Behind President Trump’s accommodating attitude toward Turkey is an unusual back channel: a trio of sons-in-law who married into power and now play key roles in connecting Ankara with Washington.
One, Turkey’s finance minister, is the son-in-law of its strongman president and oversees his country’s relationship with the United States.
Another is the son-in-law of a Turkish tycoon and became a business partner to the Trump Organization. Now he advocates for Turkey with the Trump administration.
And the third is Jared Kushner, who as the son-in-law of and senior adviser to Mr. Trump has a vague if expansive foreign policy portfolio.
Operating both individually and in tandem, the three men have developed an informal, next-generation line of communication between Mr. Trump and his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who only weeks after his military incursion into northern Syria is scheduled to visit the White House on Wednesday.
At a moment when Mr. Trump has come under bipartisan criticism from Congress for a series of stands favorable to Mr. Erdogan, the ties among the three men show how informal and often-unseen connections between the two presidents have helped shape American policy in a volatile part of the world.
Mr. Erdogan predicted in a television interview this year that a private dialogue between Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and finance minister, and Mr. Kushner would soon put “back on track” the vexed relations between Washington and Ankara. “The bridge works well in this manner,” Mr. Erdogan said.
“Backdoor diplomacy,” Mr. Albayrak called his work with Mr. Kushner.
Mr. Trump’s policy toward Turkey has confounded his fellow Republicans in Congress on a number of fronts. Mr. Trump twice surprised his own advisers by agreeing during phone calls with Mr. Erdogan to pull United States troops from northern Syria — and the second time, in early October, he followed through, clearing the way for Turkish forces to attack an American-backed militia there.Critics say the Trump administration has balked at aggressively punishing a state-owned Turkish bank for evading American sanctions against Iran. Mr. Trump has also deferred legally mandated sanctions against Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for installing Russian missile defense systems.
Speaking last week at a closed-door presentation hosted by Morgan Stanley, John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, said Mr. Trump often confuses personal relationships with national relationships when it comes to setting policy. He cited as an example the president’s reluctance to confront Mr. Erdogan by imposing sanctions on Turkey over the Russian weapons purchase, a person who was in the room for his presentation said on Tuesday after NBC News reported a version of Mr. Bolton’s remarks.
On the Russian missiles, banking sanctions and other matters, Mr. Erdogan has deployed both his own son-in-law and Mr. Trump’s Turkish business partner, Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, as emissaries to the administration, sometimes through Mr. Kushner, according to Turkish officials and public records.
In April, for example, Mr. Albayrak had come to Washington for a conference organized by Mr. Yalcindag at the Trump International Hotel. And in the middle of the event, Mr. Kushner summoned Mr. Albayrak to an impromptu meeting in the Oval Office, where Mr. Albayrak successfully pressed Mr. Trump to hold back the sanctions against Turkey for buying Russian weapons.
Both leaders appear to favor family or business connections as back channels, several advisers to Mr. Erdogan said, in part because both share a suspicion that the agencies of their own governments may be conspiring against them.
The term “deep state,” in fact, first emerged in Turkey decades ago, long before it came into vogue among Trump supporters, and Mr. Erdogan’s advisers say he has cultivated Mr. Trump by emphasizing their shared struggles against such entrenched forces within their governments.
“The U.S. has an established order that we can call a deep state — of course they are obstructing,” Mr. Erdogan said this spring, explaining his hopes for the “bridge” between sons-in-law. “These obstructions are one of our main troubles.”
Turkey is not the only case where Mr. Trump has applied an unusually informal, family-to-family approach to foreign policy. Mr. Kushner, for instance, has also played a role in managing relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the de facto ruler and favorite son of the king.
“Trump is replacing formal relations among nations in several cases with family-to-family relationship, or crony-to-crony relationships,” said Eric S. Edelman, who served as under secretary of defense for policy and United States ambassador to Turkey during the George W. Bush administration.
“Certainly Erdogan would prefer that kind of relationship as he runs a crony capitalist regime of his own,” Mr. Edelman said. “But it ought to be a matter of concern to all Americans.”
Trump Towers Rise in Istanbul
President Trump and his eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, in 2012 at the opening of Trump Towers Istanbul. With them is Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, who became a friend of the Trump family.Credit…Tolga Bozoglu/European Pressphoto Agency
Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Trump are hardly natural partners. Mr. Erdogan is a champion of political Islam who often argues that the West is in decline. Mr. Trump is a fierce nationalist who has often denigrated Muslims and especially political Islamists. Mr. Trump has closely allied himself with some of Mr. Erdogan’s greatest foes — including the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
Mr. Trump’s ties to Turkey, though, go back more than a decade, beginning with an invitation from Mr. Yalcindag to do business in Istanbul.
Mr. Yalcindag’s father-in-law, the tycoon Aydin Dogan, had set out to build two skyscrapers and a shopping mall. Mr. Yalcindag, now 55, convinced him that the family company should find an international partner. Mr. Yalcindag had negotiated to use the name “CNN Turk” for the family’s television news network, and he flew to New York to sell Mr. Trump on lending his name to the Istanbul towers.
The skyscrapers, which opened in 2012 as Trump Towers Istanbul, pay the Trump Organization only a licensing fee — $5 million to $10 million a year in the first years after it opened, and down to $100,000 to $1 million a year in more recent years — according to Mr. Trump’s financial disclosure forms.
But the buildings were the first residential and commercial towers in Europe to hang the Trump name, and both families considered them a success. Mr. Erdogan, then prime minister, cut the ribbon. Mr. Trump; his eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump; and her husband, Mr. Kushner, all attended the opening along with Mr. Yalcindag, who became a friend of their family.
“My daughter loves Turkey, and she loves Istanbul, and she really always enjoyed coming here, and she’s been here many times,” Mr. Trump said at the ceremony in Istanbul. “Her great friend is Mehmet,” Mr. Trump added, referring to Mr. Yalcindag as having “done some unbelievable job.” He praised Mr. Erdogan at length as “a good man” who was “very highly respected throughout the world and in the United States.”
For the past decade, Mr. Yalcindag has typically seen Mr. Trump socially about three or four times a year, according to a person close to the family.
Mr. Trump, as he ran for president, acknowledged that his personal relationships influenced his view of Turkey.
“I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Mr. Trump said in a radio interview in 2015, gushing that it was “a tremendously successful job.”
When Mr. Trump pledged to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Mr. Erdogan briefly called for the removal of the Trump name from the towers. But heeding advice about the value of good relations with Washington, he never followed through.
Mr. Erdogan’s advisers assumed Mr. Trump would lose in 2016. But Mr. Yalcindag flew 10 hours to be with Mr. Trump and his family at the New York Hilton Midtown while the votes were counted.
Frantic to reach the new president-elect the next day, the Turkish Embassy in Washington eventually turned in desperation to Mr. Yalcindag for the telephone number of Trump headquarters — beginning his new role as a go-between for Ankara.
Mr. Erdogan knew Mr. Yalcindag from Turkish business circles, and he had reportedly collaborated with Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law on a campaign to influence the Turkish news media. On the strength of his ties to the Trump family, Mr. Erdogan also named Mr. Yalcindag to a new role as chairman of a state-run business group that lobbies Washington on behalf of Ankara.
The group’s previous chairman, Ekim Alptekin, had run afoul of American prosecutors by paying more than $500,000 to the consulting firm of the retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who went on to become Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser. Prosecutors said Mr. Alptekin was paying Mr. Flynn to lobby the Turkish government, and they eventually indicted him for violating lobbying disclosure rules and for lying to investigators. (Mr. Alptekin has not returned to the United States to face trial.)
Taking over as the face of the state-sponsored Turkey-U.S. Business Council after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Yalcindag began to travel regularly to Washington. The council for the first time held its annual conferences at the Trump hotel in Washington, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the hotel while pulling in top Trump administration officials as speakers.
During a visit this year, Mr. Yalcindag also made stops on Capitol Hill and at the State Department, not only to lobby on trade policy but on an array of other issues, as well.
In one State Department meeting, according to a person present, his agenda included pushing for the extradition of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Mr. Erdogan of promoting the 2016 coup attempt against him; pleading for the United States to quietly settle the sanctions case against the Turkish bank with a limited fine; arguing for the sale of Patriot missiles to reduce Turkey’s need for Russian alternatives; and making the case for a Turkish takeover of northern Syria.
At times, Mr. Yalcindag implicitly threatened that Turkey might move closer to Moscow. “You might not consider Turkey at the moment as your best friend,” he told the Americans, according to a person who attended the meeting. “But it would be a shame to lose a longstanding ally.”
Mr. Albayrak, 41, is often referred to in Turkey simply as “the groom.” But he acquired a new nickname after Mr. Trump’s election: Erdogan’s Kushner.
The son of a journalist close to Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Albayrak lived in New York early in his career. He earned a business degree at Pace University while working for the American division of one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates, Calik Holding.
He married the president’s daughter Esra in 2004, and he was named chief executive of Calik three years later.
By 2015, Mr. Erdogan helped Mr. Albayrak, then 37, to win a seat in Parliament and named him energy minister. But Mr. Albayrak’s influence rose even more rapidly after a faction of military leaders attempted a coup against Mr. Erdogan in July 2016. Mr. Albayrak joined his father-in-law on a jet circling the skies over Turkey while Mr. Erdogan used his iPhone to rally his supporters. (A live interview by FaceTime with CNN Turk, founded by Mr. Yalcindag, helped turn the tide.)