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Trump says U.S. shouldn't criticize Turkey's Erdogan over post-coup purge

By Ishaan Tharoor

July 21, 2016 at 1:22 PM

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention is taking place. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

A lot of people are parsing Donald Trump's very interesting interview with New York Times journalists David Sanger and Maggie Haberman that was published Wednesday night. The Republican presidential nominee, as my colleague Philip Bump notes, called into question whether his administration would fulfill North Atlantic Treaty Organization obligations. After reading the Times interview, the Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg declared that "Hillary Clinton is running against Vladimir Putin" — an indication of the extent to which Goldberg and other foreign-policy watchers think Trump's views play into the hands of the Kremlin.

Sanger and Haberman also pressed Trump for his reaction to last week's failed coup in Turkey. A mutinous faction of the country's military launched a deadly Friday night putsch that was ultimately repelled by forces loyal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the days since, authorities have embarked on an astonishing purge of the state's institutions, leading to the arrest, detention or suspensions of tens of thousands of soldiers, judges, academics, civil servants and others caught in the dragnet of the government's roundup.

Related: [How Trump explains Turkey, and Turkey explains Trump]

"I don't think so," Trump said, responding to a question from the journalists about whether the attempted coup against Erdogan could have been staged, "but I do give great credit to him for turning it around."

He went on, extolling the public response to reports of the failed coup that brought out protesters to the streets:

You know, the first hour, it seemed like it was over. Then all of a sudden, and the amazing thing is the one that won that was the people. They came out on the streets, and the army types didn't want to drive over them like they did in Tiananmen Square when they sort of drived them over, and that was the end of that. Right? People said, I'm not going to drive over people. The people came out of their homes, and they were not in favor of what the military was doing. So that was quite impressive from the standpoint of existing government.

When asked about the implications of the ongoing purge, he echoed the arguments of those from a very different side of the political spectrum than that of Trump's conservative base: What right do we in the United States have to criticize the condition of human rights elsewhere? Here's Trump:

I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it's very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don't know what we are doing and we can't see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don't think we're a very good messenger.

This is in part a political dig at the prevailing American status quo Trump seeks to upend, but it flies in the face of the consensus view in Washington on the importance of speaking up on matters of civil liberties and human rights in more benighted parts of the planet. U.S. officials have all condemned the coup attempt but also remain wary about the current state of play in Turkey.

Related: [Donald Trump's real foreign policy: A clash of civilizations.]

As the Times conversation goes on, Trump makes clear that his particular view is not quite that the United States has no moral right to act and lecture elsewhere but that it's not right now in the best position to do so. He also seems to be not particularly interested in multilateral institutions or approaches to solving complex foreign-policy challenges and, instead, favors the ability to act unilaterally or at least "aggressively."

"We have so many difficulties in our country right now that I don't think we should be, and there may be a time when we can get much more aggressive on that subject," he said, "and it will be a wonderful thing to be more aggressive."

As is already well documented, Trump has an admiration for tough, strong leaders such as Erdogan and Putin. He's a bit less sanguine about what role a figure like Erdogan should play in helping resolve other crises, such as the conflict in Syria and the extremist threat there.

"I will say this: I think Turkey can do a lot against ISIS, and I would hope that if I'm dealing with them, they will do much more about ISIS," Trump said, using a term for the Islamic State.

But in the post-coup context, as WorldViews noted Wednesday, Turkey's ability to do "a lot against ISIS" has come under question. One of the main military officers arrested happens to be the commander of the Turkish forces deployed along the Turkey-Syria border. There are fears over morale and cohesion among Turkey's troops. But such nuance about the region, as it has throughout the election campaign, seems to escape the Republican presidential nominee.

More on WorldViews

Almost one-third of Turkey's top military officers charged in coup plot

The Middle East dreamed up at the Republican debates doesn't exist

How Donald Trump explains Turkey, and Turkey explains Donald Trump


Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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