President Donald Trump pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help persuade the Justice Department to drop a criminal case against an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was a client of Rudy Giuliani, according to three people familiar with the 2017 meeting in the Oval Office, Bloomberg reported.
Tillerson refused, arguing it would constitute interference in an ongoing investigation of the trader, Reza Zarrab, according to the people. They said other participants in the Oval Office were shocked by the request.
Tillerson immediately repeated his objections to then-Chief of Staff John Kelly in a hallway conversation just outside the Oval Office, emphasizing that the request would be illegal.
Zarrab was being prosecuted in federal court in New York at the time on charges of evading US sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. He had hired former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Giuliani, who has said he reached out repeatedly to US officials to seek a diplomatic solution for his client outside the courts.
The episode is also likely to fuel longstanding concerns from some of Trump’s critics about his policies toward Turkey and his relationship with its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Zarrab’s release was a high priority for Erdoğan until the gold trader agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in New York.
In a phone interview this month, Giuliani initially denied that he ever raised Zarrab’s case with Trump but later said he might have done so. He said he’d been speaking with US officials as part of his effort to arrange a swap of Zarrab for Andrew Brunson, an American pastor jailed in Turkey who was later released in 2018.
Giuliani said he discussed the Zarrab case with State Department officials and disclosed that two years ago, although he declined to say if he ever spoke directly to Tillerson about the case, saying, “You have no right to know that.”
Erdoğan repeatedly spoke with Trump and, before 2017, Obama administration officials about Zarrab’s case when it was before the Southern District of New York as part of a broader investigation into a scheme to evade sanctions on Iran.
At one point the State Department under Tillerson got involved in discussions over possibly swapping Zarrab for Brunson, the jailed pastor, but the matter was eventually dropped because Turkey kept escalating its demands, according to another person familiar with the timeline of events.
Tillerson has said publicly that the president frequently asked him to do things that were illegal.