That may, in fact, be strictly true. But as with Trump’s alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine, it appears it was plenty easy for Turkey to read between the lines. There certainly aren’t many outward signs that Trump initially made a serious effort to dissuade Turkey.
The White House’s initial statement on this from nine days ago — which, as with many statements, was written as if it was dictated by Trump — conceded matter-of-factly that Turkey’s invasion was going to happen. It didn’t endorse the action, mind you, but nor did it say anything warning against it. Instead, it suggested Turkey would now be in charge of captured militants with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS (key parts bolded):
Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.
The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial “Caliphate” by the United States.
The first public warning from Trump came more than 12 hours later — after Turkey had already mobilized — when he threatened its economy.
But Trump didn’t caution Turkey against invading; he merely said there would be such repercussions “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”
Later that day, Trump again talked about Turkey’s invasion as if it was just the way it had to be.
“Turkey, Syria — let them take care of it. Let them take care of it,” he said that afternoon. He added he had told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “it’s going to be your responsibility."
“And we’re going to be watching Turkey, and we hope that them and all of the other countries … including the European Union goes in and does whatever they’re supposed to do with these captured ISIS fighters and families,” Trump said.
The message was sharper from senior administration officials who held a conference call that day and repeatedly emphasized the lack of a green light. “The president has made it very clear, publicly and privately, that the United States does not endorse or support any Turkish operation in northern Syria,” they said, according to a transcript of the call.
But there’s no indication yet that message had been made clear by Trump. Despite his warnings about economic repercussions — and now his support for sanctions — Trump never set a red line publicly. When he was asked specifically what his red line was on Friday, he demurred and suggested it was generally about Turkey “killing a lot of people":
Q: On Turkey, sir: You’ve said many times the sanctions could kick in if Turkey does something they shouldn’t do.
TRUMP: The what?
Q: What is the red line Turkey should not cross to avoid sanctions?
TRUMP: Well, we’ll see.
Q: Like what? An example.
TRUMP: We’ll see. We have a good relationship with Turkey. They’re a NATO partner. We do a lot of trade with Turkey. But we don’t want them killing a lot of people.
You could be forgiven for thinking Trump was more than okay with Turkey doing this. Back when he first announced a later-aborted complete Syria withdrawal in December, he publicly pitched the Turks as the force that could take over for the United States.
“President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria,” Trump tweeted just before Christmas, “and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right ‘next door.’ Our troops are coming home!”
The White House may now argue that even that wasn’t a green light, but Trump sure seemed to view it as an attractive alternative. And contained in the tweet, you can practically see how Erdogan has been pitching this to Trump.
As with many Trump administration matters, when those around the president assure you he has been “very clear” about something, it generally means he has been anything but. As with Ukraine, it matters less what Trump has explicitly endorsed and more what his comments clearly suggest.
In this case, the suggestion early on was that Trump saw Turkey invading Syria as a satisfactory fallback. It may not have been his first choice, as he first sought to apply pressure on European allies to step up, but there is little indication Trump delivered anything amounting to a strong warning against it. If you’re Erdogan, short of that, you’re going to assume Trump is at least tacitly giving you the go-ahead.