Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria last month was said to have potentially included war crimes while killing scores of U.S.-allied Kurds. It provoked bipartisan outrage from some of President Donald Trump’s greatest allies in Congress, and it had the U.S. on the verge of leveling punishing sanctions.
None of that seemed to dampen the reception President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey got from Trump on Wednesday at the White House, where, among other things, Trump called his autocratic counterpart a “very good” friend and said he was a “big fan of the president.”
The warm welcome for Erdoğan hit some bumps during a midday meeting with Republican senators eager to confront the leader over Turkey’s recent purchase of a Russian missile system — which Trump indicated, after a day of meetings, was still unresolved — and the Syria invasion.
But Trump made little mention of the split in attitudes between one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the other, and steered clear of publicly criticizing Erdoğan over human rights issues in Turkey.
Instead, he announced that both countries would begin work on a $100 billion trade deal, applauded Erdoğan for upping Turkey’s contributions to NATO and thanked him for his country’s help in the fight against ISIS.
“Turkey, as everyone knows, is a great NATO ally,” Trump said in a joint news conference with Erdoğan .
Despite the outcry from lawmakers last month, their dissent on Wednesday was less visible, or drowned out by the beginning of public impeachment hearings in the House.
While Trump ignored entreaties from a bipartisan group of House lawmakers to rescind his invitation to Erdogan, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said last week the panel wouldn’t be taking key action on legislation to sanction Turkey over the Syria incursion while Erdoğan was in town.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence struck a cease-fire with Turkey last month, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell backed down from his threat to introduce a resolution demanding Trump withdraw his invitation to Erdoğan for a visit. Even so, he expressed his discontent with an optimistic tone on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.
“Although I have expressed concerns about granting President Erdoğan such an honor in light of his recent actions, I hope the meeting produces better behavior from this important NATO ally,” he said. “I know the vast majority of my colleagues share my concerns about Turkey’s recent behaviors.”
Trump briefly opened an Oval Office meeting with Erdoğan and the senators to reporters, where the lawmakers portrayed a tough stance.
Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina), among the most outspoken about his opposition to Turkey’s recent moves, acknowledged how significant Wednesday’s meeting was. “I’ve never had an opportunity like this before,” he said. “I appreciate it. The purpose of this meeting is to have an American civics lesson for our friends in Turkey.”
Senator Rick Scott (Republican-Florida), meanwhile, said he was there to ensure that “Turkey is heading in the direction of the United States, not heading in the direction of Russia,” while Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she was looking to “remain very strong allies in NATO.”
At his news conference later, Trump said the meeting included “a lot of very frank discussion” about “complex” issues.
Trump also made no mention of Turkey’s frequent jailing of journalists, but joked at one point when searching for a reporter to call on that he wanted to pick only a “friendly person from Turkey.”
When the Turkish reporter he called on asked about former President Barack Obama’s “flawed” foreign policy and Trump’s invitation to meet with the leader of the commander of the U.S.-backed Kurdish army in Syria, accusing the general of carrying out terrorist attacks, Trump questioned whether the journalist he called on was actually a reporter.
“You don’t work for Turkey with that question?” he joked.
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