During his press conference with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, President Trump said that he had an open-door policy for all world leaders, regardless of where they might fall on the political spectrum: “Anybody that wants to come in, dictators, that’s okay.” But his Wednesday meeting with the Turkish leader shows again that Trump is particularly comfortable around authoritarian figures, and enjoys putting them at ease as well. Like his posture around Vladimir Putin in July 2018 — when the president said he didn’t “see any reason” why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 election — Trump appeased his anti-democratic guest throughout their meeting in the White House East Room.
“I’m a big fan of the president,” Trump said of Erdogan, adding that the two have been “very good friends” almost from “day one.” Trump called him “a friend” one more time and added that Erdogan is “a hell of a leader.” On several points, it was a bizarre moment in the U.S.-Turkish relationship — the most immediate concern being that a couple weeks prior to the meeting, Erdogan threatened to buy Russian fighter jets if the United States did not make F-35s available for purchase. It wasn’t the greatest day for Trump’s self-styled reputation as a tough negotiator, but then again the president has been soft on Erdogan for months now — sending him an embarrassing letter encouraging Turkey to limit its assault in Syria that was immediately thrown in the trash, and agreeing to withdraw troops from northern Syria hours after a call in which Erdogan suggested he do so.
Rather than stand up to the Turkish president for his October assault on Kurdish allies in northwestern Syria, Trump cozied up to Erdogan’s ideal vision for the region. Trump praised the Turkish-Kurdish cease-fire that is “moving forward at a very rapid clip,” despite evidence that the Turkish army has repeatedly violated the agreement, and criticism that the deal requires Turkey to give no concessions. (He also said that Erdogan maintains a “great relationship with the Kurds,” which is a standard take for the uninformed president.)
Trump also repeated a claim that minimizes U.S. commitment to the region: “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.” Whether or not the president has a polished critique of American hegemony in the Middle East, that line, together with the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, effectively gives Erdogan carte blanche to pursue his goals in the region.
The press conference began shortly after day one of the public impeachment proceedings came to a head. Despite the threat to his presidency, Trump couldn’t help but flirt with the idea of stealing Syria’s oil, a concept that — if the Pentagon ever let him pursue it — would land him in impeachment hearings all over again. “We’re keeping the oil,” Trump said. “We have the oil, the oil is secure. We left troops behind only for the oil.” (Last week, the vice-director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff denied such a claim.) Meanwhile, U.S. drones show that a Turkish proxy army is targeting Syrian civilians, and that 200,000 have been displaced since the October 9 invasion.