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President Trump Hosts Turkey’s Erdogan Despite Concerns In Congress

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Photo by Mandel Ngan AFP via Getty Images

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump meet with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, Emine Erdogan, outside the White House on Wednesday.

President Trump is meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday for the first time since Turkey undertook a military offensive in northern Syria that angered U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Trump opened the door to the Turkish incursion when he abruptly announced he would be pulling U.S. troops from that part of Syria after a phone call with Erdogan in early October.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly condemned these moves by Trump and Erdogan. Some have argued that Trump should not have given Erdogan the honor of a White House visit in light of Turkey's actions in Syria.

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In an Oval Office meeting, Trump said he and Erdogan have been friends "for a long time" and that he planned to discuss Turkey's purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system with Erdogan, as well as U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets.

Trump briefly addressed the criticism, saying he had "heard all the pundits" opposed to his removal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria reverse course. Trump said critics are now saying, "Wow that's really working well."

Trump also asserted that "we're keeping the oil," referring to wells in Syria that experts say aren't producing that much crude.

The meeting comes on the first day of televised impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill. Trump told reporters he was "too busy" to watch the hearings.

Trump took the unusual step of inviting a group of Republican senators to meet with Erdogan in the Oval Office on Wednesday, including Jim Risch of Idaho, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Rick Scott of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.

While Trump has clashed with Erdogan at points, he has mostly embraced a partnership with the Turkish leader. "The president is committed to direct engagement in diplomacy, where it is most critical," a senior Trump administration official said ahead of the visit. "Full and frank engagement is essential to addressing the challenges facing this relationship."

Trump has dismissed the notion that the U.S. has an obligation to permanently protect Kurdish forces, which have been allied with the U.S. against the Islamic State. Turkey considers these Kurdish fighters to be terrorists and says the U.S. should end its partnership with them.

While a cease-fire agreement was reached a few weeks ago, Heather Conley, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the full implementation of the deal remains uncertain.

"This is going to be very difficult for the foreseeable future," said Conley, who is director of CSIS's Europe Program. "They may declare success about this cease-fire and the safety zone, but quite frankly, I think there are more questions being raised than success."

Trump and Erdogan were expected to discuss the cease-fire as well as the fate of the Islamic State fighters detained in Syria. Kurdish forces had been guarding these Islamic State militants.

The U.S. said that Turkey would be responsible for recapturing any fighters who escaped during the incursion into Syria. But Erdogan has threatened to release the militants into Europe.

The U.S. and Turkey have also clashed on Turkey's decision to buy Russia's S-400 missile defense system. In response, the U.S. has barred Turkey from buying U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets.

National security adviser Robert O'Brien told CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday that Trump plans to tell Erdogan that, as a NATO ally, Turkey should not be buying Russian military equipment.

So far, Turkey has refused to give up the defense system.

Erdogan's last visit to Washington, D.C., in 2017, ended in violence when his security detail attacked protesters outside the Turkish ambassador's residence. Seven of Erdogan's bodyguards faced criminal charges in the incident, which injured nine people, but those charges were later dropped.

The administration official acknowledged that it will be a tough lift to find common ground between the U.S. and Turkey on some of the critical issues.

"Due to a whole variety of factors over the past five or so years, this relationship has slipped to ... where there are a number of issues where we seem to be at loggerheads," the official said.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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