By midafternoon Tuesday at the White House, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already spent several hours there in a visit largely overshadowed by Capitol Hill’s grappling with the consequences of President Donald Trump’s recent interactions with Russian officials.
The bilateral meeting between the two heads of state was mostly background music amid a new controversy White House officials scrambled to tamp down: Trump’s apparent disclosure of a classified Islamic State plot to Russian officials last week in the Oval Office. But when the two leaders appeared together, the U.S. president made clear he has no intention of distancing himself from a Middle Eastern leader many lawmakers and experts warn is a dictator-in-the-making.
Trump offered his administration’s “support” to Turkey in its fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known widely as the PKK. Of the complex and bloody civil war in Syria, Trump said: “We … appreciate Turkey’s leadership in seeking an end to the horrific killing.”
And, notably, the new U.S. president also pointed to an issue that defined his unlikely rise to the presidency — trade — as a subject of his talks with his Turkish counterpart.
“President Erdogan and I are also discussing the need to reinvigorate our trade and commercial ties,” Trump said as the duo delivered statements in the Roosevelt Room. “These are areas where we can build our relationship that will benefit both of our countries.”
Trump offered no harsh words for Erdogan on matters such as a recent referendum that experts say amounts to a consolidation of power under his office. Nor did Trump urge the Turkish leader to do more to help the United States defeat the Islamic State. The same was true for Erdogan’s efforts to help find a resolution in Syria.
The U.S. president’s carefully crafted words came after he was the lone Western leader to call the Turkish leader and congratulate him on the referendum outcome, placing the new American diplomat in chief on an island when it comes to Turkey’s behavior. Erdogan has jailed journalists and conducted a crackdown of opposition members after a failed coup attempt last year, which drew bipartisan criticism from Washington.
At the Capitol, where leaders of both parties use press conferences after their traditional Tuesday policy lunches to send political and policy messages, Erdogan didn’t come up at all amid the Russia controversy.
“It’s not unusual for a U.S. president to call an ally after an important vote,” said Melissa Dalton, a former official in the Pentagon’s policy office. “But context matters, and there’s no doubt that U.S. allies and adversaries alike took note of the nature of President Trump’s call to President Erdogan following the referendum.
“While the call may have been intended to shore up a key ally, particularly given tensions over U.S. support to Syrian Kurdish forces … it was interpreted by many observers as the U.S. president applauding President Erdogan’s consolidation of power. Calls from the U.S. president have strategic consequences,” Dalton said.
Experts, including Dalton, say it is unlikely that Trump will gain any new allies or offer much reassurance to existing ones through his support for the Turkish leader. But the new U.S. president has a transactional approach, and his secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has said the administration’s foreign policy will focus less on the conduct of other leaders and mostly on what the United States can get from them.
That could mean Trump simply, by all accounts, is unconcerned with Erdogan’s actions — or other allies’ concerns — as long as the Turkish leaders gives him most of what he wants. And that’s no short list. Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish Foreign Service official, said Trump’s approach to Erdogan appears more than simply cozying up to a strongman, as it’s often put by his critics in the United States.
“A more robust alliance with Turkey would have many benefits for President Trump,” he said. “Not only on the fight with ISIS, but President Trump has talked about a broader Middle East strategy that has a harsher focus on Iran. There would have to be discussions with the Turkish government about what kind of role it could play — and Turkey would have to play a major role for that to bear fruit for President Trump.”
The Trump administration expected the Turkish government to be upset by its recent decision to give arms to a Syrian Kurdish group called the YPG, a militia outfit the Turks view as part of the PKK. To that end, Trump did not object nor bat an eye Tuesday when Erdogan brought up the group. In fact, Trump let him vent.
“There is no place for the terrorist organizations in the future of our region,” the Turkish leader said. “Taking YPG … into consideration in the region, it will never be accepted.”
To be sure, even after the YPG flap, Trump appears to be focused on, in his transactional way, getting everything he can out of Erdogan.
“We’ve had a great relationship,” Trump said, “and we will make it even better.”
On Tuesday, “the two presidents, we can safely say … decided to paper over their disagreements … and do nothing to poison the meeting or their relationship, which is strategically important to both sides,” Ulgen said.