“It’s been … suggested that Turkey may have called America’s bluff, telling the president they are coming no matter what we did,” said Romney, of Utah. “If that’s so, we should know it. For it would tell us a great deal about how we should deal with Turkey, now and in the future.”
Romney then returned to the idea that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might have given Trump an ultimatum that was met with acquiescence.
“Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey!?” Romney said. “I believe that it’s imperative that public hearings are held to answer these questions, and I hope the Senate is able to conduct those hearings next week.”
Romney is elevating an idea that hasn’t gotten enough attention, though it appears to have been confirmed by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Trump himself in the days before Romney’s remarks.
The Washington Post reports that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Trump copped to this in their contentious Oval Office meeting on Wednesday. Schumer said Trump recalled Erdogan told everyone “we’re going to go in whether you want it or not.”
Esper, too, seemed to indicate Sunday that Erdogan told Trump that Turkey was going in regardless.
“The first thing that we understood — I’ve understood from my counterpart, Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo … and certainly from President Erdogan, is they were fully committed to doing this, regardless of what we did,” Esper told “Fox News Sunday.”
“We thought [the withdrawal] was prudent,” Esper added. “It was my recommendation. I know the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed as well. We should not put U.S. forces in between a Turkish advance.”
Esper reiterated the point later: “I think they were fully committed. That was what I took from my conversations with my counterpart, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff took from his, Secretary Pompeo from his.”
Most of the theorizing about what happened has focused on the idea that Trump got rolled by Erdogan, who has been pitching the idea that Turkey could take over the fight against ISIS in northern Syria for a long time. The possibility that Trump gave away the farm because Erdogan was particularly convincing or because of something else — Trump’s business interests in Turkey, his desire for Middle East withdrawals, etc. — is a well-trafficked theory among Trump’s opponents.
But whether that is true, it seems Trump basically got told what was going to happen and essentially let Erdogan dictate the terms of a withdrawal. We are talking about a relatively small country forcing the hand of the United States and the supposed dealmaker in chief.
And in retrospect, it makes sense that’s how it went down.
Trump spoke with Erdogan the day he abruptly announced the withdrawal. He also may be entering his final year as president, and Turkey has long wanted to go after the Kurds in northern Syria. If you’re Erdogan, you know that the next president almost definitely won’t be so amenable to your plans for the region. You’ve also been pitching this idea more softly for two years without getting your desired U.S. withdrawal. So why wouldn’t you eventually play this card? It might be a bluff that Trump could call and you’d come to regret, but it might also be your last, best chance to get a compliant U.S. president. And this is an issue of major emphasis for Turkey, which views Syria’s Kurdish fighters as terrorists who constitute a clear and constant threat to it.
But exactly how this was communicated is important. Esper’s confirmation is secondhand and suggests this is his understanding. But we don’t quite have the full story.
Romney is now calling for hearings on it. Other Trump critics have called for the release of what Trump and Erdogan said on that call, similar to the release of the call with Ukraine’s president.
The White House certainly won’t want to disclose what was said. But we’ve seen with Ukraine that pressure can force disclosure. And at the very least, it seems fair to ask whether Turkey dictated a U.S. withdrawal — because, as Romney says, that says a lot about the relationship.