During a meeting in the Oval Office Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled out an iPad to show a small group of Republican senators and President Donald Trump a propaganda video casting the Kurds in a negative light, according to a GOP source familiar with the situation.
The source called the video, which was first reported by Axios, “surreal” and “straight propaganda.”
GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham, Jim Risch, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst and Rick Scott all attended the candid and at times tense meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes. Reporters were briefly invited in to see the lawmakers raise their foreign policy concerns with Erdogan — specifically addressing the sale of Russian weapons to Turkey and Turkey’s conflicts with the Kurds.
The senators “did most of the talking” with Trump “playing traffic cop,” the GOP source said. The senators warned that Turkey will face US sanctions unless it reverses course on the purchase of a Russian missile defense system, a senior administration official and two sources familiar with the matter said.
Trump invited the five senators — all of whom have been vocal critics’ of Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system — in order to show Erdoğan the strong opposition he faces, a senior administration official said. It was also in part an effort by to show Erdoğan that his hands are tied on the sanctions issue.
“We saw it as more good cop, bad cop,” one source said of the meeting, noting the group showed Erdoğan that Trump’s “hands were tied” because the Senate isn’t going to give Turkey F-35s if they don’t get rid of the S-400.
“To the extent that Erdoğan understands now the leverage and strength that the Senate has on this … that was helpful,” the administration official said.
In order to demonstrate that unified front, national security adviser Robert O’Brien held a call with the five Republican senators before the meeting in order to get them on the same page about focusing on the S-400 issue, two administration officials and a Senate Republican source said.
Trump also warned Erdoğan in his letter that week that sanctions were coming if Turkey deploys the S-400 system, but a source familiar with the meeting said the senators were more forthright on Wednesday.
The threat of sanctions was the focus of the Oval Office meeting, but the Republican senators also delivered candid and sometimes heated criticisms to Erdoğan about other issues.
Graham, who has been a vocal critic of Turkey’s invasion of Syria, at one point engaged in a heated back-and-forth with Erdoğan over the subject and the fate of the US’s Kurdish allies, the senior administration official and two sources familiar said.
Graham “was pretty aggressive on Syria,” one source said.
Scott also raised serious questions about Turkey’s ongoing membership in NATO as it grows increasingly cozier with Russia.
Cruz said in a statement that he pushed Erdoğan on the S-400 system and the attack on the Kurds.
“I have always described Turkey as an ally — a deeply problematic ally, but an ally nonetheless, in a very troubled region of the world. I went to the White House today to tell President Erdoğan exactly that,” he said, calling Turkish attacks on Kurds “absolutely unacceptable” and saying he “made clear” to the Turkish leader that the US will not sell F-35 jets to Turkey “so long as as Turkey continues to procure or deploy the S-400 air defense system from Russia.”
Trump invited these senators knowing they would be candid in their views. He wanted a frank discussion and wanted the lawmakers to air their concerns, one source familiar with the conversations said, adding that Trump believes it’s important to maintain a positive relationship with Erdoğan and isn’t concerned that other US officials, like these lawmakers, feel differently.
A senior administration official said Trump first raised the possibility of inviting the senators to meet Erdoğan last week. A source familiar with the matter said it gave Trump an opportunity to avoid directly confronting Erdoğan on the S-400 issue while still raising the concerns in an official capacity.