With relations between Washington and Ankara historically strained, President Trump on Wednesday held a high-stakes meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just weeks after the latter ordered a controversial invasion of northern Syria following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.
The two leaders were expected to discuss Turkey’s decision to purchase a Russian-made air defense system – even though Turkey is a member of NATO and hosts a U.S. military base – as well as the country's military actions against Kurds in northern Syria, which have drawn widespread bipartisan condemnation in Congress.
The Turkish offensive followed Trump’s announcement last month that he intended to pull U.S. troops out of Syria — a move that critics have said left Syrian Kurds, long allies of the U.S., vulnerable to slaughter by Turkish forces.
Trump, meanwhile, argued last month that actions by Turkey in Syria were “not our problem” and that the Kurds were not the “angels” that their defenders made them out to be.
“We are not a policing agent,” Trump added. “It is time for us to go home.”
The meeting of the two world leaders has drawn criticism from both Republican and Democrat lawmakers, who earlier this week called on Trump to cancel his encounter with Erdogan.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been one of the most vocal critics from Trump’s own party when it comes to relations between the U.S. and Turkey.
“Nations all over the world including #SaudiArabia #UAE & #Egypt watching very closely,” Rubio wrote of other U.S. allies in the region,” Rubio tweeted. “If sanctions are waived they will conclude they can get away with buying weapons from #Russia or allowing #China military bases.”
Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to sanction senior Turkish officials and its army for the military incursion into Syria to fight the Kurds. Erdogan sees Kurdish forces in Syria as an extension of a separatist Kurdish group that's been fighting inside Turkey since the 1980s.
"This is not the time or place to be extending hospitality and exchanging niceties with a dictator," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
In the Senate, two Democrats introduced legislation denouncing Turkey's targeting of journalists, political opponents, dissidents, minorities and others. They said the Turkish government had imprisoned more than 80,000 Turkish citizens, closed more than 1,500 non-governmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds and dismissed or suspended more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs.
Trump has defended his relationship with Erdogan as critical to regional security in the Middle East and added Turkey has been a key U.S. ally for decades, citing the economic upside to the relationship as a reason to overcome the differences.
Trump administration officials have said the president told Turkey not to invade Syria. But when Erdogan insisted, they say Trump decided to move 28 Green Berets operating on the Turkey-Syria border so they wouldn't be caught in a crossfire between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurds.
A State Department official said Trump is not rewarding Erdogan with a White House visit but is conducting diplomacy. The official said high-level consultations are needed because of the volatile situation in Syria that has displaced tens of thousands of people.
Besides the invasion of Syria, there is also concern surrounding Erdogan’s presence in Washington following his last trip to the U.S. capital in May 2017, when members of his security detail were accused of assaulting American demonstrators outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington. New protests were expected Wednesday in Lafayette Park across from the White House.
The leaders’ scheduled afternoon news conference, following a meeting with Republican lawmakers at the White House, also will give Trump a stage to counter the first public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry. Just before warmly welcoming Erdogan to the White House, Trump tweeted that the House Democrats were “trying to stop me, because I'm fighting for you. And I'll never let that happen."
Fox News’ Dom Calicchio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.