U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday lauded his relationship with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan as the leaders met to overcome mounting differences between the two NATO allies ranging from Syria policy to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.
Trump’s warm welcome of the Turkish president comes amid anger in the U.S. Congress about Ankara’s offensive into Syria to drive out a Kurdish militia, Washington’s main partner in the fight against Islamic State.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, almost from Day 1. We understand each others’ country. We understand where we are coming from,” Trump told Erdogan as they sat next to each other in the Oval Office. “They’re highly respected in their country and in the region,” Trump said of Erdogan and his wife Emine.
In front of the White House, protesters denounced Erdogan’s visit and urged Trump to protect Kurds threatened by Turkey’s incursion in Syria. One sign read, “America Stand With Your Kurdish Allies.”
Trump also said they would discuss Ankara’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system. Trump also added that the two sides would talk about a potential $100-billion trade deal.
“We’re also talking about the trade deal…Frankly, we’re going to be expanding our trade relationship very significantly,” Trump said.
Despite his warm welcome, the two NATO allies have been at loggerheads for months now and their ties hit a new crisis point last month when Erdogan began a cross-border incursion against America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and upended the U.S. presence there. The United States has also been livid over Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defense systems.
Turkey shrugged off threats of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, in which Ankara was a manufacturer and buyer. But so far, the United States has not imposed any sanctions.
Five Republican senators, including vocal Turkey critic Lindsey Graham, came to the White House and spoke with Erdogan and Trump about the F-35 program.
“That’s what we’re here for, we’re talking about with our great senators. There are a lot of alternatives. We’ll work something out. I project that we will work something out,” Trump said.
Turkey’s S-400 purchase infuriated the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives last month passed a sanctions package to punish Turkey over its Syria operation which key members of the Senate, such as Trump’s ally Graham, have vowed to advance if Ankara endangers Kurds.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz pressed Erdogan on Turkey’s treatment of Syria’s Kurds.
“The Kurds have risked a lot to stand with America and fight our shared enemy and there is very real concern that we do not want to see Turkey engaged in offensive actions against the Kurds,” Cruz said.
The House also voted last month in favor of a non-binding resolution recognizing the killings of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago as a genocide, a symbolic but historic vote denounced by Turkey.