Washington, United States | AFP | President Donald Trump will leap from the frying pan of impeachment into the fire of foreign policy controversy when he hosts his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on Wednesday.
On the day that the impeachment process shifts to the dramatic phase of public hearings in Congress, Trump’s meeting and joint press conference with Erdogan at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue promises extra fireworks.
Trump and Erdogan have good chemistry and the US president often seems to get along better with foreign strongmen than traditional US allies in places such as Western Europe or Canada.
That relationship, however, is under strain following NATO member Turkey’s October offensive against US-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Trump ordered US troops in the border area to withdraw ahead of the Turkish invasion, while exhorting Erdogan in an extraordinarily undiplomatic letter to hold his military back.
“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Trump wrote in the letter, which was reportedly thrown by Erdogan into the trash.
Despite the letter, Trump’s withdrawal of the US soldiers effectively gave Turkey a green light.
This outraged many in the president’s own Republican party, which saw the move as an abandonment of the Kurds and a dramatic boon for Russian ambitions in Syria.
“Given this situation, we believe that now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the United States, and we urge you to rescind this invitation,” a bipartisan group of legislators wrote to Trump last week in a letter made public Monday.
Separately, the US government is furious at Erdogan for agreeing to buy the Russian S-400 missile system — a no-no for a NATO member.
Washington has excluded Turkey from the F-35 stealth warplane program over the purchase, creating even more tension in the troubled Western alliance.
Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said Sunday that economic sanctions could also be imposed over the S-400.
– ‘Genocide’ –
The get-together comes with Trump’s presidency facing deep peril from impeachment in Congress. The first public hearing of witnesses testifying that Trump abused his office in dealings with Ukraine starts just two hours before Erdogan’s midday arrival.
This leaves Trump weakened at a time when he needs to avoid antagonizing the Republicans who will be voting on his fate.
Those legislators have little love for Erdogan and the feeling is likely mutual.
The House of Representatives showed its displeasure in October by voting to recognize the mass destruction of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
Modern-day Turkey continues to deny the accusation of genocide, saying Armenians were merely among the many other victims of World War I. The vote infuriated Erdogan.
If there is any political positive for Trump from the tricky Erdogan meeting, it will be the chance at least to distract public attention from the simultaneous impeachment hearing.
Following three hours of meetings and lunch, the Turkish leader and Trump will stage a joint press conference at 3:10 pm (2010 GMT).
– Protesters beaten up –
The State Department defended the invitation to Erdogan, saying the complex issues make face-to-face talks important.
“Don’t look at these things as rewards, they are the execution of diplomacy,” an official said.
But there will be tension to spare even beyond the Syrian Kurds and the S-400s.
Washington is angry over the long-term detention of Turkish citizens working for US consulates, while Ankara continues to push hard for the extradition of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan claims engineered a failed 2016 coup.
Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney raised another point of contention: the ugly scenes during Erdogan’s last Washington visit, in 2017, when his bodyguards beat up protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
“The Erdogan regime’s use of violence against civilians anywhere is inhumane, uncivilized, and unacceptable,” she wrote in a letter demanding that the State Department bar any of the “thugs” involved from returning.