WASHINGTON — Three times over the past year, President Donald Trump has spoken with Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and told Erdogan what he wanted to hear.
In December, Trump stunned his own national security team by abruptly deciding to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, clearing the way for Erdogan’s long-sought incursion into the country.
On Sunday, Trump spoke again to his Turkish counterpart and then issued a similar declaration. And in between the calls, in June, Trump came away from a meeting with Erdogan echoing Turkish talking points blaming President Barack Obama for the country’s purchase of a Russian missile system.
The relationship between the two prideful and blustery men has had its rocky patches — and its threats. Trump, facing backlash from Republicans on Monday, warned on Twitter that he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if Erdogan were to cross unspecified “limits” in Syria.
But U.S. and Turkish officials alike describe an unusual partnership in which Erdogan has repeatedly guided Trump toward positions that pit him against his own national security advisers and Republican allies. Analysts call it an oddity of their relationship that two naturally combative leaders, both prone to explosive insults, seem to understand each other and believe they can sort things out by phone.
Erdogan will soon have the president’s ear again: Trump announced in a tweet Tuesday that the Turkish leader would visit the White House on Nov. 13. He also continued Tuesday to defend his decision, tweeting that “in no way have we abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters.” Erdogan is one of several foreign strongmen who draw condemnation from human rights groups but with whom Trump appears to keen to do business. Both are man-of-the-people nationalists who have battled resistance from their respective security establishments.
While Trump rails against a bureaucratic “deep state” seeking to overthrow him through investigations and impeachment, in 2016, Erdogan survived an actual coup that turned bloody.
“They share a similar worldview; they dislike elites,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ office in the Turkish capital, Ankara. “Trump would probably like to govern the way Erdogan does.”
On Sunday, Erdogan even seemed to play a version of the deep state card with his counterpart. According to the readout of Sunday’s telephone call released by Turkey’s presidential palace, Erdogan “shared with Trump his frustration over the U.S. military and security bureaucracy’s failure to implement” an agreement between the two countries governing security in northern Syria.
Trump responded by telling Erdogan, much as he had in December, that he would be removing U.S. troops from the area where the Turkish leader hoped to do battle with Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been critical U.S. allies against the Islamic State. Turkey considers those fighters a threat to its own borders and security.
Trump knows Turkey from his earlier life in real estate — he sold his brand name to the Trump Towers Istanbul in 2010 — but like presidents before him, he has struggled to devise a consistent policy toward the country.
Instead, he has focused on his personal relationship with Erdogan in conversations that people familiar with them describe as typically “fawning.” Trump usually begins by praising Erdogan, who is himself notorious for haranguing American presidents with grievances, according to those people.
That chumminess has unsettled both appointed and elected officials suspicious of Erdogan’s repressive policies, Islamist sympathies and deepening relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nearly everyone agrees, however, that simply shunning the head of a NATO-member nation at the pivot point between East and West is not practical.
The Trump-Erdogan friendship has already survived at least one major test, when relations flared over Erdogan’s continued detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was jailed for nearly two years in a widespread crackdown after a failed coup in Turkey. When Brunson was not freed as he expected, Trump announced in a hostile tweet that he was doubling tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum and watching the Turkish lira slide.
After Brunson was freed last October, Trump expressed public gratitude to Erdogan for “making this possible.”
To some former U.S. officials who have worked closely with Erdogan’s government, the relationship between Trump and Erdogan is an unsolved puzzle.
“It’s not really clear to me what Trump, or the United States, gets out of this,” said Phil Gordon, who served at the State Department and on the National Security Council under Obama.
“It’s consistent with other seemingly inexplicable Trump actions that are more in line with Russian interests than with ours,” added Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Even before their collective anger over Trump’s Sunday announcement about Syria, Senate Republicans had been frustrated with the president’s resistance to placing sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the advanced Russian S-400 missile system. Congressional leaders call it a clear violation of a 2017 law requiring economic penalties on countries that purchase Russian arms.
With pressure mounting in Washington on Trump to enact sanctions, he sat down in June with Erdogan at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, where the Turkish leader argued that he had been forced to buy Russian arms because Obama had unreasonably blocked Turkish efforts to purchase the U.S.-made Patriot missile.
Former Obama administration officials say the story is far more complicated and that Erdogan had other options. But they said the Turkish leader had skilfully handed Trump, who revels in criticism of his predecessor, an ideal talking point as he deferred questions about whether he would impose sanctions.
Trump did cancel the planned sale of more than 100 F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, whose operation in proximity to the Russian system NATO opposes on security grounds. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the law “requires” sanctions.
“Trump is trying really hard to avoid slapping sanctions on Turkey, and that’s partly because he’s trying to not rupture his relationship with Erdogan,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A Pentagon spokesman Tuesday challenged published reports that Trump’s decision to order U.S. troops to move out of the area where Turkey plans an offensive surprised senior officials and said Trump had consulted Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the days before talking to Erdogan.
But Pentagon officials said they had discussed Erdogan’s threats to invade northern Syria, and there was no prior hint about Trump ordering U.S. troops to step aside and leave their Syrian Kurdish allies vulnerable to attack. In fact, the officials said, both Esper and Milley warned their Turkish counterparts last week that any such cross-border operation would seriously damage U.S.-Turkey relations.
In all the furor over Trump’s announcement, there has been a studied silence from Erdogan.
Likewise, Trump’s recent tweets — even those threatening Turkey’s economy with destruction — have avoided calling out Erdogan by name.