Turkey’s recent offensive against a key U.S. ally in Syria did not stop President Trump from honoring Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a White House visit and joint press conference. Throughout the afternoon on Wednesday, the president had approving words for the authoritarian leader, whose military invaded northern Syria and forced out America’s Kurdish allies.
“I’m a big fan of the president, to tell you that, and I know that the ceasefire, while complicated is moving forward, and moving forward at a very rapid clip,” Mr. Trump said during his joint news conference with Erdogan in the White House’s East Room.
Following the first day of public impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump claimed he did not recall a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland regarding “investigations,” a conversation top diplomat to Ukraine Bill Taylor testified that an aide overheard. The president insisted that was the first time he heard of such a conversation. Mr. Trump said he had no time to watch a “minute” of the impeachment proceedings because he was too busy meeting with Erdogan. But the president did reiterate his desire to know who the anonymous whistleblower is.
In an Oval Office meeting before their news conference, Mr. Trump thanked Erdogan, and emphasized that the U.S. wants to shift its focus to its own borders, not others’ borders.
“I want to thank the president for the job they’ve done, again, this has been thousands of years in the process between borders, between these countries and other countries that we’re involved with 7,000 miles away,” Mr. Trump said of Erdogan. “So, we want to worry about our things.”
Mr. Trump added he and Erdogan have been “very good friends,” almost from “day one.” He mentioned that many of Turkey’s people are being killed “in the area that we’re talking about” and it’s “not a one-way street.”
In the afternoon, the president held a meeting with Erodgan, Senators Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst and Jim Risch.
“I’ve never had an opportunity like this before. I appreciate it. The purpose of this meeting is to have an American civics lesson for our friends in Turkey. And there’s a pony in there somewhere if we can find it,” Graham said during that meeting.
Mr. Trump noted Wednesday that he and Erdogan would discuss the Russian S-400 missile defense system Turkey has purchased, along with the F-35 fighter jet program. The U.S. kicked the Turks out of the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program during the summer over their decision to buy the S-400, which could be a threat to F-35 planes and which is also not compatible with NATO systems. Turkey could also face U.S. sanctions over its purchase of the Russian weapons system.
Asked by a reporter whether there was any way that Turkey could use the S-400 system and participate in the F-35 program at the same time, the president responded that he and Erdogan were talking about it. Nothing was announced Wednesday afternoon.
Graham released a statement after the meeting saying “it is almost a universally held position in Congress that the S-400 is incompatible with the F-35 fighter,” and further, that Turkey’s activation of the Russian missile system “will require the U.S. to keep Turkey from the F-35 program and issue sanctions.”
He was also more critical of Erdogan than President Trump was. Though he characterized the meeting as “frank” and “candid,” he also called Turkey’s invasion of Syria “incredibly disruptive” and called for it to end. He did not rule out the idea of a “safe zone” to address Turkey’s concerns about its security but said “Turkey cannot do it through force of arms,” and he vowed “The United States cannot and will not abandon our Syrian Democratic Forces allies.”
While he referred to Turkey as a “valuable ally” and member of NATO, his assessment was stark. “I’m hoping to salvage this relationship, but only time will tell of that is possible.”
Erdogan’s visit comes weeks after Turkey launched its assault on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria. Some human rights groups are criticizing the visit, and some members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — including some Republicans — asked the president to rescind the invitation.
Turkey launched its offensive in October after Mr. Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Days later, Mr. Trump said Turkey had called to say there would be a “permanent” ceasefire with the Kurds, and he announced the U.S. was lifting sanctions on Turkey.
Mr. Trump later offered warm words for Erdogan, calling him a “friend of mine” and “a hell of a leader.”
He has also said the Kurds are “not angels.”