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Behind the Scenes, Erdogan’s Friendly White House Visit Had Tense Moments

Friday November 15, 2019
By Michael Crowley, Megan Specia and Catie Edmondson

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, of Turkey during a news conference on Wednesday with President Trump at the White House.Credit...T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The Turkish leader clashed with a Republican senator and returned President Trump’s pointed letter warning against a military incursion into Syria.

WASHINGTON — To outward appearances, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey enjoyed a genial visit to the White House on Wednesday, where he and President Trump exchanged compliments and resolved to work out multiple policy disputes between Washington and Ankara.

But behind the scenes, the visit featured some tense and awkward moments that have come into clearer view only after Mr. Erdogan’s departure. Among them was an unusual Oval Office meeting Mr. Trump convened with Mr. Erdogan and five Republican senators, some of whom challenged the Turkish leader in sharp terms, according to attendees.

On his return to Turkey, Mr. Erdogan was rewarded with accolades from pro-government news outlets for standing up to Mr. Trump by returning a blustery letter Mr. Trump sent him in October. In the message, Mr. Trump warned the Turkish leader, “Don’t be a fool,”  by launching a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Mr. Erdogan ignored the warning and sent troops across the border on Oct. 9.

“We gave back the letter that we have received,” Mr. Erdogan said Wednesday during a joint news conference with Mr. Trump. On his plane home, Mr. Erdogan said the White House “had no reaction” to his gesture, according to the Turkish news channel NTV.

While Mr. Erdogan himself did not gloat, pro-government news outlets in Turkey did. The Daily Sabah ran an article under the headline “Decisive Stance From Erdogan,” noting that the letter “was returned to its owner by hand.” Hurriyet and Milliyet, two newspapers owned by a pro-government conglomerate, also announced the return of the letter on their front pages.

The White House declined to comment, and Mr. Trump did not mention the letter on Wednesday.

Mr. Erdogan also went on the offensive in his meeting with the senators. Sitting beside Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, he surprised the lawmakers by producing an iPad to play a video depicting atrocities said to have been committed by two Kurdish groups, the People’s Protection Units, known as the Y.P.G., and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the P.K.K.

The Y.P.G. played an instrumental role in the fight against the Islamic State, working closely with United States military forces. Turkey calls it an offshoot of the P.K.K., a separatist organization that the State Department has designated as a terrorist group. Mr. Erdogan insists he is unfairly branded as anti-Kurd, and objects only to Kurdish groups he calls a threat to Turkey’s security.

Mr. Erdogan told reporters on his plane that Mr. Trump was “very impressed” by the video, according to NTV.

But the Turkish leader was also on the receiving end of stinging words.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was among the Republican attendees in the Oval Office meeting, recounted on Thursday that Mr. Erdogan — a strongman rarely challenged directly at home  — “went nuts” after Mr. Graham used the word “invasion” to describe Turkey’s widely condemned military offensive against the Kurdish fighters.

“I said, ‘Well, the reason it’s an invasion is that’s exactly what you did,’” Mr. Graham said. “I warned you not to do it. And everything that I was worried about came true in spades.”

In response to Mr. Erdogan’s video, Mr. Graham recalled, “I said, ‘Want me to get the Kurds to make one about what you’re doing?’”

Analysts said that Mr. Trump probably hoped such exchanges would demonstrate for his Turkish counterpart, with whom he has sought warm relations, the pressure he faces from members of Congress who are furious over the Turkish military action in Syria, as well as Turkey’s purchase of a Russian antiaircraft missile system. Leaders of both parties in Congress have called for sanctions to punish the moves by Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally that under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership has moved toward authoritarianism, including closer ties with Russia.

Mr. Trump said he wanted to salvage that relationship, and on Wednesday he cited a 70-year alliance between Washington and Ankara forged during the Cold War, when Turkey feared Soviet domination.  

The Republican senators in attendance — Mr. Graham, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Jim Risch of Idaho, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida — share that view, but have been far more willing than Mr. Trump to criticize the Turkish leader.

“Primarily, this was Trump’s favor to Erdogan, allowing him to plead his case directly with the Republican senators in an attempt to prevent a veto-proof sanctions vote against Turkey,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s Parliament and now a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

“Trump would have also seen this as an opportunity to demonstrate that he alone does not call all the shots on U.S. foreign and security policy, so as to lower Erdogan’s expectations from him personally,” Mr. Erdemir added.

Mr. Risch, who serves as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he and the other senators who attended had explained to the Turkish president that the mood of Congress was “very clearly not in his favor.” He added that Mr. Erdogan’s tone had been “defensive.”

Mr. Risch said he told Mr. Erdogan that he would effectively block Turkey from receiving any American F-35 fighter jets, which it helped develop in partnership with the Atlantic alliance, as long as the country retains the Russian surface-to-air missile systems, known as the S-400. Defense Department officials say that operating the advanced F-35 in proximity to a Russian system could compromise the plane’s technology. Mr. Risch and other leading members of Congress also say that Turkey’s acquisition of the missile system should set off sanctions under a 2017 law meant to punish the purchase of Russian military hardware by other nations.

“The president I can tell you was sitting right there when we delivered this very hard message,” Mr. Risch added. “Erdogan did not look to him for help and the president did not offer help.”

Mr. Risch said he hopes to move a bipartisan package of sanctions against Turkey that he sponsored with Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the panel, although not until “negotiations have fallen off the rails.”

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, met Thursday with Mr. Trump and discussed, among other matters, the S-400 sale. European diplomats said a compromise was possible, and both sides were signaling they wanted one. But one diplomat said the technical hurdles to reaching some sort of deal that is acceptable to both sides remained a challenge.

“There is a strong motivation, drive to solve the disagreement,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “And if we are not able to solve the disagreement, to find a way to avoid it undermining the alliance.”

Mr. Trump also held a second meeting with Republican senators on Thursday, including Mr. Cruz, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Steve Daines of Montana, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.

“Having some relationship, even with your adversaries, makes sense, particularly one that still is a NATO ally, and we still have obviously some very strong interest in,” Mr. Cramer said.

After the White House publicly released Mr. Trump’s Oct. 9 letter to Mr. Erdogan, some Turkish news reports suggested the Turkish leader had thrown it in the trash, and he publicly criticized it, telling reporters in Istanbul, “We will not forget this lack of respect.”

Michael Crowley and Catie Edmondson reported from Washington, and Megan Specia from London. Julian E. Barnes and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Washington.


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