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Turkey's Erdogan At The White House


Judging by his tweets or by his speeches, the president is intently focused on the impeachment fight, though he has a very different duty today. He hosts Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just weeks ago, President Trump moved U.S. troops out of the way of a Turkish invasion of Syria. Trump also wrote a letter to Erdogan appealing to him not to go too far - quote, "don't be a fool." Turkey's president openly ignored that letter. Now the leaders of these two NATO allies meet face to face. NPR national security correspondent David Welna is with us. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Got a mention - a White House visit is a pretty big deal for a foreign leader. Isn't this a gift to President Erdogan, even after he dismissed President Trump?

WELNA: Yeah, especially since Erdogan's previous visit 2 1/2 years ago was marred by Turkey's security heavies beating up pro-Kurdish demonstrators outside the Turkish ambassador's residence. But this is kind of the reverse of what's gone on with Ukraine. In this case, Trump's gone ahead with this meeting despite being asked not to by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. And it's not clear what he's getting in return.

I talked about this with Philip Gordon. He's a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations. And he was the point man for Turkey during the Obama administration. He thinks Trump's doing this simply because he admires Erdogan.

PHILIP GORDON: Erdogan doesn't need a White House visit to boost his political standing. I think for him it's a chance to negotiate face-to-face, you know, one-on-one, more or less, with the guy who's most important and who seems to take his side whenever he gives him the Turkish perspective.

INSKEEP: Guy who's got authoritarian tendencies, who's been beating down democracy in his own country, hammering the media - much admired by the president of the United States. What does Erdogan want out of this visit?

WELNA: Well, I'm pretty sure he'll be defending Turkey's incursion into Syria. He'll also be seeking reassurances that the sanctions that Trump imposed on Turkey for doing that - and then lifted a few days later when the cease-fire was declared - won't be coming back. Turkey also wants the U.S. to stop supporting Kurdish allies in Syria whom Ankara calls terrorists.

Turkey has also been demanding the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. He's the Islamic cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, who's accused of promoting the attempted coup against Erdogan three years ago. And Turkey wants the U.S. to drop charges brought last month against a state-owned Turkish bank accused of violating the trade embargo with Iran.

INSKEEP: You mentioned it's not clear what Trump is getting out of the meeting. But what is it he would like to get out of the conversation?

WELNA: Well, I think he wants Turkey's declared cease-fire in Syria to be made permanent, although even he seems to question whether that's likely. The other big ask would likely be about the Russian S-400 air defense system that Turkey acquired this year despite being a member of NATO. And even though that's prompted the U.S. to kick Turkey out of the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, the U.S. wants assurances that Turkey won't use that Russian system.

But the Trump administration seems to be sending mixed signals. It has yet to certify that Turkey has crossed the line by making what's called a significant transaction with Russia, which would trigger sanctions against Turkey. Last week in the Senate, Democrat Bob Menendez introduced legislation to force the administration to weigh in on this. Here's Menendez on the Senate floor.


BOB MENENDEZ: The administration is breaking the law by ignoring this provision and kowtowing to Ankara. According to U.S. law, Turkey must be sanctioned for the S-400 system, and it should happen today.

INSKEEP: Should Erdogan be concerned that Congress seems to like him a lot less than the president does?

WELNA: Well, I think as long as Trump keeps talking with him, he's on solid ground because Turkey trusts that the alliance with Trump will be a bulwark against anything that Congress might do.

INSKEEP: Thanks. NPR's David Welna.

WELNA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.