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Syria invasion, Russian weapons don’t foul Erdogan White House visit

Updated November 13, 2019 - 6:15 pm

WASHINGTON — A month after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent Turkish forces across the border into Syria’s then-“safe zone,” President Donald Trump ignored bipartisan disapproval and rolled out the red carpet for the NATO leader.

During a joint news conference in the East Room, Trump told reporters that Erdogan and he have been “very good friends” for a long time. “We understand each other’s country. We understand where we’re coming from. I understand the problems that they’ve had.”

“It’s not a one-way street,” Trump said of Turkish-U.S. relations.

The relationship includes Erdogan’s attendance at the opening of Trump Towers Istanbul in 2012. As a candidate, Trump offered that he might have a “conflict” when dealing with Turkey.

Trump and first lady Melania Trump greeted Erdogan and his wife, Emine, at the South Portico around noon — as the first day of public House impeachment hearings had grabbed and held most of Washington’s attention.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer remarked, “It is just sad that while President Trump storms out of White House meetings with Democrats, he rolls out the red carpet for autocrats.”

Schumer then panned Trump for his “uncanny ability to get rolled by autocrats like Erodgan and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin without getting a thing in return.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement in which he admitted his “concerns about granting President Erdogan such an honor in light of his recent actions” before he expressed his hope for a strong outcome.

“It is important for the region and the fight against ISIS that Turkey’s incursion into Syria not further jeopardize the anti-terrorism campaign of the Syrian Democratic Forces,” McConnell added.

Impeachment backdrop

Trump later maintained that he was too busy working with Erdogan to watch so much as a minute of the televised hearing, which began at 10 a.m. Trump voiced regret that he “had to waste this gentlemen’s time” on impeachment, as “I’d much rather focus on peace in the Middle East.”

Trump’s Twitter account remained active throughout the day.

Erdogan used the White House as a platform to air his assertion that his government has no problems with Kurds — but he felt he must fight back against Kurds who belong to “terrorist organizations” working out of Syria.

After the midday greeting, Trump and Erdogan talked in the Oval Office and shared a working lunch in the Cabinet Room.

Then five national security-conscious GOP senators — most notably Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been critical of Trump’s decision to green light the Turkish incursion into Syria — joined the two leaders in the Oval Office.

Graham called the meeting an opportunity to “have an American civics lesson for our friends in Turkey.”

Some issues unresolved

Both leaders maintained that the cease-fire negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was holding, but other issues remain unresolved.

Trump was able to spice the start of the news conference with the news that Turkey has released American Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen arrested in 2016. In 2018, then State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called Golge’s arrest and conviction on terrorism charges “unjust” and called on Ankara to release him to his family.

“That’s a deliverable,” Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Review-Journal.

Last year, Erdogan brought a smile to Trump’s face when he released Pastor Andrew Brunson — a victim of religious persecution in the eyes of the administration — whom Turkey had detained for two years.

But Schanzer voiced disapproval of Trump’s failure to impose sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft weapon systems from Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions ACT, also known as CAATSA.

“I think that the take-away here is that Trump’s personal relationship with Erodgan continues to grant the Turkish president a free pass on issues where he is directly challenging the interests of the United States,” he said. “One would have hoped that the president would have gotten tough with Erdogan.”

Trade deal offered

Rather than threaten sanctions, Trump dangled a carrot before Erdogan, a potential trade deal that the White House said could boost U.S.-Turkish trade to $100 billion annually if Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross succeeds.

In the Oval Office, a reporter asked what Trump might do about the S-400 in terms of the trade deal. Trump responded, “We’ll be talking about the S-400. We’ll be talking about that and we’ll be talking about the F-35 fighter jet too.”

“We still don’t know much,” said Kilic Burga Kanta, research director for the Turkish think tank SETA. “The meeting demonstrated there’s a willingness on both sides” to fix things. Kanat was pleased that Trump did not threaten punitive action because of the weapons purchase. “It’s a good sign.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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