On Monday, as Trump’s perceived “green light” and the announced withdrawal of all U.S. forces from northern Syria continued to draw criticism after heavy fighting erupted, the president turned tough. In another call with Erdogan, Trump “pressed him very strongly,” demanding a cease-fire and imposing harsh sanctions, Vice President Pence said.
But by Wednesday, even as Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were preparing for a confrontational trip to Ankara, Trump appeared to have softened. The fighting, he said, was between “Syria and Turkey.” There was just “a lot of sand” in the region, he said, and the conflict “has nothing to do with us.”
Then in a letter made public later Wednesday, sent by Trump to Erdogan on Oct. 9, the day the Turkish offensive began, Trump said: “Let’s work out a deal!” “Don’t be a fool!” the president wrote, before signing off: “I will call you later.”
The deal ultimately brokered with Pence on Thursday, in which Turkey achieved virtually all of its objectives, was a “credit to the strong relationship between our two leaders,” the vice president said in a news conference.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has shown a particular affinity for strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He has called North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a wise leader and a friend. “Those were always the guys he liked the most. Erdogan, Duterte, Putin, Xi, Kim,” a former senior administration official said.
With Erdogan, Trump seems to have found a soul mate. Not only does he consider the Turkish leader “a tough guy who deserves respect” and “a friend,” according to another former senior official, but Erdogan has now provided Trump with a way to at least partially achieve his campaign promise to remove U.S. forces from the Middle East.
To others, however, “respect” looks more like appeasement.
“If you want to get Erdogan’s attention, you have to treat him like the thug he is,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview this week. “The administration has mishandled Erdogan.”
Erdogan was prime minister of Turkey when, on an April day in 2012, his official calendar called for him to attend the opening of a new building in Istanbul and he found himself at the side of Donald J. Trump.
Trump, in his role as real estate developer and celebrity, had come to the Turkey with his daughter, Ivanka, for the opening of the Trump Towers Istanbul, two buildings shaped like a giant pair of scissors that include offices, apartments and a retail complex.
Erdogan stood by while Ivanka gushed that the Towers — which Trump had neither financed nor built, instead merely selling his name to grace the buildings — were “the first of many world-class developments” they would undertake throughout Turkey.
But far from the happy Trump Towers scene of mutual advantage, Trump and Erdogan, now the elected presidents, have come together again, this time on the brink of a major regional war in the Middle East.
'We'll just talk about it later'
Since Trump took office, Erdogan has studiously avoided criticizing the American president, even as he has launched frequent broadsides at Trump’s underlings and White House policies. Although Trump has at times expressed anger with Turkey, imposing steel tariffs and visa restrictions on senior officials when his demands for the release of an imprisoned U.S. pastor were not met, his public ire was not directed at Erdogan.
Erdogan was well aware of Trump’s desire for a troop withdrawal. In calls and meetings that began shortly after Trump took office, Erdogan — who is known to study Trump’s tweets and watches the U.S. news for opportunities to praise him — drew comparisons between his problems at the Syrian frontier and Trump’s own struggles on the U.S. southern border.
He regularly pushed Trump to end the U.S. partnership with Syrian Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State and to “let him handle” the situation in Syria, another former official said. The Syrian Kurds, Erdogan argued, were terrorists, allied with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. His offer to let his own troops take over the fight against the militants was met with skepticism by Trump’s own advisers.
“Erdogan, in trying to speculate about the president, was probably thinking that the advisers of the president were telling him to stay in Syria and prevent the return of ISIS and contain Iran’s adventurism in eastern Syria,” said retired Gen. Jack Keane, once considered a candidate for defense secretary by Trump, referring to the Islamic State.
“But the president, when he gets the opportunity to speak freely, is talking about getting out of endless wars and getting out of the Middle East. Erdogan was intending to drive a wedge between the president and his advisers,” Keane said in an interview.
Before leaving the administration, several officials — defense secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, chief of staff John F. Kelly and White House staff secretary Rob Porter — advised Trump in “dozens” of conversations in 2017 and 2018 not to end the relatively small but successful deployment of about 2,000 troops in Syria. A half-dozen former top Trump officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity about sensitive diplomatic relations, provided a history of the Trump-Erdogan relationship.
After one call with Erdogan in 2017, Trump ordered then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to release a statement saying that the U.S. forces in Syria were coming home. Kelly and McMaster worked to scuttle the withdrawal, along with Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
They argued that Republican lawmakers, whose support was needed for Trump’s tax cut bill, would oppose it; that the battle against the Islamic State was not yet won; that many Syrians would die.
Trump, a former official said, “finally got to, ‘Okay, we’ll just talk about it later.’ ”
'On and on and on'
“I know what an Erdogan call is like,” one of the former officials said of contacts between the two presidents. Trump would give some of his talking points. Over the years, they included pressing Turkey to block Islamic State fighters from transiting the country, keeping Syrian refugees from traveling to Europe, and releasing the American pastor, Andrew Brunson.
Then Erdogan would start talking, going “on and on and on” for a half-hour or more about how the United States was betraying Turkey by arming and partnering with Syrian “terrorists” against the Islamic State.
When Pompeo briefed Trump before an Erdogan call last December, he stressed the importance of “holding the line” against Turkish complaints. But Erdogan, reminding Trump that he had declared the militant “caliphate” nearly defeated, quickly jumped in.
“You’re almost done with ISIS,” he said. “I can do it, Turkey can do it. You don’t need to do it anymore.” And Trump said, “Yeah, great,” a former official recalled.
Within hours, Trump announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops. Mattis resigned, rejecting the lack of a national security decision process as much as the decision itself.
Eventually, Trump was persuaded to pull out only half of the American force. Bolton, the national security adviser Trump would fire months later, told both Israel and Turkey that U.S. forces would be there “indefinitely.” Pompeo announced that the United States would remain in Syria until “every Iranian boot” was expelled.
For months, the promised full withdrawal seemed forgotten.
In a meeting with foreign journalists last summer, Erdogan, asked about his seemingly warm relations with Trump, acknowledged that the two leaders were similar in some ways. Both, he said, were determined individuals who had to put up with underlings continually trying to thwart them.
But sadly, Erdogan said, Trump was less successful in fighting back.
“President Trump said that American soldiers would withdraw from Syria,” he said. “In spite of the fact that he said so, American soldiers — have they been withdrawn? No, they haven’t been able to.”
“Personally, when I take a decision, I make sure it gets to be implemented. I wouldn’t take a step back after that,” Erdogan said. “If a backward step is taken, then it would mean bureaucracy is pulling your strings.”
One former administration official, while spreading the blame for the current crisis, did not disagree with Erdogan’s assessment.
“They thought they had bought an indefinite delay,” he said of Trump’s aides. Trump said in repeated conversations with Erdogan and others that “he didn’t want to be there anymore. At some point, the national security team needs to work with that reality.”
On the day after Turkish troops crossed the Syrian border last week, Erdogan praised Trump for standing up to those who rebelled against his wishes.
“Mr. Trump made the right decision” to withdraw U.S. forces, he said. “We made the decision with him, during our phone call.”
Fahim reported from Istanbul. David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.