WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a one-day visit to the White House on Wednesday, despite bipartisan concern that the authoritarian leader is sowing chaos in the Middle East.
When House legislators began public hearings To investigate Trump's interactions with Ukraine, the president completely embraced another controversy weighing on his White House: his decision last month to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey's invasion of Russia a few days later.
On Wednesday, there was little sign of the bipartisan criticism that emerged in response to Trump's approach to Turkey. After a series of meetings, the president told reporters during a news conference in the eastern room that he hopes to negotiate an agreement with Turkey that will significantly expand trade between the two countries.
"I'm a big fan of the president," Trump said of Erdogan.
The weeks-long meeting with Erdogan allowed Trump to divert some attention from the impeachment hearings taking place at the Capitol, but also renewed focus on an issue that caused rebellion within his own party.
"While expressing concern about giving President Erdogan such an honor in light of his recent actions, I hope the meeting will produce better behavior from this important NATO ally," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday. "I share the discomfort of my colleagues when I see President Erdogan honored at the White House."
Democrats and Republicans have argued that Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria was a betrayal of Kurdish forces that helped American troops fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Trump dismissed these concerns on Wednesday.
Trump said Erdogan, who described many of the Kurds on the Turkey-Syria border as terrorists, has "a great relationship with the Kurds."
Speaking to reporters, the president also sided with Erdogan on the Syrian refugee issue. He said Europe should help Turkey pay for the more than 3 million refugees who fled Syria during that country's civil war.
Erdogan said Turkey has resettled 365,000 of these Syrian refugees in northern Syria. But many of them come from other parts of the country and some critics have suggested that by relocating them to northern Syria, Turkey is forcing Kurds, Christians and other minorities to flee – essentially engaging in "ethnic cleansing".
Trump did not answer a question from a Turkish reporter about whether he is planning to invite Syrian Democratic Forces leader General Mazloum Kobani to Washington. Congressional lawmakers pushed for this visit and Kobani tweeted that Trump had invited him.
"Let's see what happens," Trump said in response.
Trump invited a group of Republican senators to meet Erdogan. Reporters entered the Oval Office to briefly witness the meeting and saw Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C .; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Ted Cruz, Texas; Rick Scott, R. Fla; and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, sitting with the two leaders.
"The purpose of this meeting is to have an American civic class for our friends in Turkey," said Graham, who has greatly criticized Erdogan and Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria. "And there's a pony in there somewhere if we can find it."
Erdogan's visit comes amid reports of clashes in Syria – and questions about whether Turkish-backed forces were involved in ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. Turkey's attack, along with the US withdrawal from northeastern Syria, took more than 180,000 civilians to flee border areas, according to the United Nations.
Although the United States has brokered a ceasefire between Turkey and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, it is unclear how well this is happening. According Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighting continued this week between the SDF and forces loyal to Turkey. Russian and Syrian government troops moved to fill the power vacuum left by the US withdrawal.
"The ceasefire is doing very well," Trump said earlier in the Oval Office.
Trump raised an important sticking point with Erdogan: Turkey's purchase of a Russian-made missile system, the S-400. Turkey has received delivery of the Russian weapons system this year, despite harsh US warnings against such a move.
The White House responded canceling Turkey's participation in the Pentagon's elite Joint Strike Fighter program, saying the S-400 system could be used to collect confidential data about the F-35 jet fighter program, making Turkey's participation "impossible."
Trump said Turkey's decision caused "very serious challenges for us." The president is under pressure to impose tough sanctions on Turkey for the purchase of the S-400 as well as for the attack on Syria. The house approved a sharp sanction The bill last month aimed to hurt the Turkish economy and punish Erdogan personally by requiring an appraisal of his net worth.
"Let's talk about this," Trump said of the arms purchase.
Contribution: David Jackson