President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will meet at the White House on Wednesday for a visit that has isolated the president from some of his strongest defenders on Capitol Hill and drawn criticism from his most loyal base of voters following Turkey’s attack on U.S.-allied Kurds in northeastern Syria.
Adding to the drama, the high-stakes visit will also take place as the House begins the first day of open hearings in its impeachment inquiry, creating a split-screen effect that will focus scrutiny on the Trump White House.
The big-ticket items the two leaders are expected to discuss include the situation in Syria, Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems and Turkey’s removal from the F-35 joint strike fighter program.
The meeting is likely to revive criticism of Trump’s decision roughly a month ago to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria following a phone call with Erdoğan, which was viewed as paving the way for a Turkish military operation against Kurdish fighters in the region. A move by Trump to embrace the Turkish leader, who he has described as a friend, could rankle his Republican allies in Congress, many of whom vocally opposed the withdrawal.
The meeting will mark Erdoğan’s first visit to Washington since May 2017, a trip that was overshadowed when members of his security detail attacked pro-Kurdish protesters in the nation’s capital. Like the last Oval Office face-to-face between the two leaders, Wednesday’s encounter comes at a time of tensions between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally.
“If President Trump can walk a fine line between wanting to repatch the U.S.-Turkish relationship but showing that he’s not throwing the Kurds under the bus, I think Republican lawmakers will be satisfied,” said Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.
The attack on the Kurdish forces in Syria proved a rallying point for both House Republicans and Democrats, but GOP members have stopped short of uniformly condemning the Turkish president’s visit, focusing their efforts on controlling messaging and defending Trump in the impeachment inquiry.
House Republicans have put their weight behind bipartisan legislation imposing sanctions on Turkey for its incursion into northeastern Syria and calling for detailed reports on Erdoğan’s finances and that of his family.
Yet only two House Republicans signed a Democratic-led letter calling for Trump to rescind his invitation to Erdoğan, with other House GOP members registering their opposition by calling for banning the Turkish security officials implicated in assaulting protesters in 2017.
How Trump handles Turkey could further inflame accusations that the president makes foreign policy decisions guided by personal relationships and businesses interests.
The New York Times on Tuesday reported that Erdoğan’s son-in-law and minister of finance and treasury, Berat Albayrak, successfully convinced Trump to withhold imposing sanctions over the Russian missile purchases.
Administration officials have pushed back on suggestions that Trump is soft on sanctions when it comes to Turkey and vigorously disputed suggestions that the decision to pull back was a green light to Ankara. And national security adviser Robert O’Brien said Sunday the president will “very clearly” tell Erdoğan that the Russian hardware must go.
“We’ve made that very clear to President Erdoğan. There’s no place in NATO for the S-400. There’s no place in NATO for significant Russian military purchases. That’s a message that the president will deliver to him very clearly when he’s here in Washington,” O’Brien said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Trump withdrew sanctions on Turkey over its offensive in Syria following a “pause” in hostilities brokered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence. Trump has also framed his move as an effort to fulfill a campaign promise of withdrawing U.S. troops from endless wars abroad.
But the developments failed to quiet critics who have accused Trump of abandoning U.S. allies and ceding ground to enemies like Russia.
Some experts believe White House photo-op will further strengthen Erdoğan’s support back home, where he can claim victory for advancing Turkish interests in the U.S.
“For President Erdoğan, Trump is the only real advocate and supporter he has in Washington right now,” said Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Obama administration official, “given the high level of frustration in Congress with Turkey and also frustration of the State Department and Pentagon with some of these recent Turkish actions.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s favor with his most loyal political base, evangelical Christians, is being tested over allegations that Turkish-backed forces are committing war crimes against minority groups in Syria, including Kurds, Christians and Yazidis.
Last month, Christians United for Israel, one of the largest political action groups for evangelicals, called for tough sanctions on Turkey over its offensive in Syria.
“We cannot sit idly by as a radical Islamist strongman, who backs terrorists like Hamas, engages in the slaughter of our stalwart allies the Kurds,” Christians United for Israel founder and Chairman Pastor John Hagee said in a statement at the time, and called on the president to cancel his visit with Erdoğan. “Nor can we be silent as this totalitarian threatens Middle Eastern Christians. The short-term consequence of the U.S pullback from Syria will be a humanitarian disaster that pushes the Kurds into the arms of our adversaries.”
Franklin Graham, president of the evangelical humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse, put his support behind the president but said Erdoğan and Turkey “are not a friend of democracy.”
“I’m not concerned that [Trump is] going to be fooled by the Turkish president,” Graham said. “The president understands the dangers, he understands the threat to religious freedom that Turkey poses, and I just pray that God will give him wisdom and be very direct in what he has to say to the president of Turkey.”
Trump is scheduled to hold bilateral meetings with Erdoğan at the White House before participating in a joint press conference with the Turkish leader later Wednesday.
The meeting could be overtaken by the events on Capitol Hill, where two U.S. diplomats are slated to testify publicly about the Trump administration’s machinations toward Ukraine.
Still, lawmakers are sure to be closely watching the developments at the White House and any major news will reverberate on Capitol Hill.
“The biggest challenge he’ll have is probably found at home because he has a Congress that on a bipartisan level is united against trying to improve this relationship between the U.S. and Turkey,” said Coffey, who added it was important to get the bilateral relationship back on track.
“He needs to go into the meeting with his eyes open and understand that U.S.-Turkish relations are at a low point,” he said.