Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the White House on Wednesday — a month after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria triggered a Turkish onslaught — was already set to make waves.
Then Democrats announced they would begin public impeachment hearings the same day.
Now, the hotly anticipated diplomatic encounter with Turkey’s strongman leader has assumed even more weight as Trump navigates the start of the inquiry’s public phase alongside a counterpart skilled in capitalizing on Trump’s vulnerabilities.
As Trump sits for Oval Office talks and later convenes a joint news conference with Erdoğan, two senior US diplomats will be testifying across town about the President’s dealings with Ukraine. Both expressed their concerns in closed depositions about the role Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had assumed in navigating US policy.
A recurring theme in the impeachment interviews has been confusion and worry at Trump’s chaotic foreign policy, and nowhere is that more evident than with Erdoğan, who has appeared to bend Trump into making favorable pronouncements at multiple junctures.
Multiple witnesses have testified at the difficulty in scheduling a White House visit for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Erdoğan hasn’t appeared to encounter similar difficulty. Even after lawmakers encouraged Trump to canceled his planned visit following the assault on Kurds, Trump kept the engagement on his calendar.
Erdoğan isn’t the only global strongman to have caught Trump’s attention. The President touts his close friendship with China’s Xi Jinping and has exchanged what he calls “love letters” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He acknowledged as much in a speech on Tuesday.
“Anybody wants to come in — dictators, it’s OK. Come on in. Whatever’s good for the United States; we want to help our people,” he said during a speech in New York.
But no leader has appeared to get what he wants from Trump quite like Erdoğan.
Trump’s relationship to Erdoğan had been under scrutiny since before the October phone call between the men abruptly led to Trump’s announcement he was withdrawing US troops from northern Syria, green-lighting Turkey’s long-planned invasion.
The President had previously announced he was withdrawing US troops from the country after an earlier phone call with Erdoğan. That led to the resignation of his defense secretary and the senior US official overseeing the counter-ISIS coalition.
On Tuesday, two US defense officials confirmed a Wall Street Journal report to CNN that the US military is in possession of at least one drone surveillance video which the US believes captured a possible war crime being perpetrated by Turkish-commanded fighters in Syria.
Trump has also echoed Turkish talking points in excusing the country’s purchase of a Russian-made air defense system, claiming it had no choice after it was denied US equipment by the previous administration.
Trump wrote a letter to Erdoğan last week offering a new trade deal and suggesting it was possible to avoid sanctions if the two countries can resolve some lingering disputes, including the purchase of the Russian missile system and the ceasefire in Syria, according to a senior administration official.
In exchange for the $100 billion trade agreement, Turkey would need to adhere to the October ceasefire in northern Syria the US helped broker, Trump wrote.
He also wrote it was possible for Turkey to avoid sanctions, which are required by Congress after Turkey took delivery of the S-400 Russian air defense system. Trump has delayed implementing those sanctions and administration officials say they are looking to see whether the S-400 system becomes operational before moving forward. Trump said in the letter he would have no option but to impose the sanctions unless Turkey accepted the deal. He said Turkey could be readmitted to the F-35 program if the system isn’t activated.
The letter was first reported by the Middle East Eye.
Officials said during their meeting on Wednesday, Trump would confront Erdoğan on the purchase of the S-400 missile system and encourage him to make permanent the US-brokered ceasefire in northern Syria.
But like their previous encounters, there is the possibility for off-script moments and surprising outcomes. Erdoğan has applied pressure on Trump to extradite a US-based cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who he accuses of masterminding a 2016 coup attempt. And Trump has held out the possibility of new tariffs on Turkey, a NATO ally.
Turkey has largely shrugged off the threat of US sanctions for the S-400, and none have yet materialized, angering some lawmakers. Members of Congress were similar frustrated by Trump’s move to pull US troops from Syria, which left America’s Kurdish allies in the region open to Turkey’s attacks. The House passed package of sanctions on Turkey to punish the country for the invasion.
In an unusual move, Trump has scheduled a White House meeting with a select group of foreign policy-minded Republican senators with Erdoğan on Wednesday, according to multiple sources.
It’s framed as an opportunity to “clear the air” and have a serious and frank discussion about the real fissures in the relationship, which also includes US outrage over Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons systems, one source familiar with the meeting said.
Congress also passed a resolution last week recognizing the Armenian genocide, another move designed to signal its displeasure in Turkey.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote Trump this week asking him to call off the White House visit, though there was no indication he planned to cancel. And the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney, called on the State Department to deny entry to the Erdoğan bodyguards who were involved in an assault on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence during a 2017 visit to Washington.
The White House said ahead of the visit that Trump wanted to pursue diplomacy despite the irritants between the two countries.
“The President is committed to direct engagement and diplomacy where it is most critical: Erdoğan himself,” a senior administration official told reporters. “Full and frank engagement is essential to addressing the challenges facing this relationship.”
“This is a nearly 70-year alliance. It has helped both of our countries through very dark times,” the official added. “We are not going to throw it away lightly if there is a way forward. This administration believes in engagement. We are engaging.”