President Trump sparred Tuesday with a top Senate Republican during a closed-door meeting at the White House over how severely to punish Turkey for purchasing a Russian antimissile system, according to officials familiar with the matter, as he pushed back against senators advocating for bringing the full force of sanctions against the NATO ally.
Senate Republicans, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (Idaho), are urging Trump not to waive mandatory sanctions against Turkey for purchasing the Russian-made S-400 system, which they argue would jeopardize the security of NATO’s F-35 stealth fighter technology. Last week, Trump announced he would cancel Turkey’s purchase of over 100 F-35 fighter jets in response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepting delivery of the Russian system but stopped short of imposing further punishments against Turkey for doing business with the Russian defense industry.
Instead, according to people in the meeting, Trump appeared to be advocating negotiations with Turkey instead of harsh sanctions — leading to a “robust discussion” and the open dispute between Risch and the president, according to people familiar with the closed-door meeting.
“Everyone in the room knew there were many options available, and there was spirited and robust debate on all sides of the issue,” Risch spokeswoman Suzanne Wrasse said Tuesday.
The clash between the two, who are otherwise allies, punctuated a meeting specifically called to discuss potential Turkey sanctions, in which the president appeared uninterested in the issue and instead chatted about a panoply of other topics, according to several people either present at the late-afternoon meeting or briefed on it.
Trump mused on health-care policy and on immigration, according to the officials. He made a mention of “AOC Plus Three,” his new nickname for four liberal House Democrats whom Trump targeted in racist tweets last week.
GOP senators in attendance also repeatedly praised Trump for the recent budget deal he reached with congressional leaders, and the president remarked on the largely positive media coverage that his agreement has garnered, officials said. Trump noted that although the Wall Street Journal editorial page was critical — the newspaper faulted the agreement for lack of fiscal restraint — that reaction was expected.
After nearly an hour, Trump was steered back to the topic at hand by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who pointed out to the president that a number of Republican senators there would like to hear his views on potential sanctions, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.
Trump’s stance is at odds with senators of both parties, who have insisted the United States must follow through on the punishments it warned for months that Turkey would face for accepting the S-400 system. A group of leading Senate Democrats, who were not included in the White House meeting, reiterated in a letter Tuesday to Trump that they “agree with Secretary Pompeo and many Senate Republicans that sanctions must be imposed on Turkey in accordance with the law.”
“Without decisive action by the United States, our position in NATO and the strength of our sanctions regime on Russia will suffer,” wrote the group of Democrats, led by Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the party’s top member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But according to several Republicans who emerged from the meeting, the discussion focused more on “how we can negotiate with Erdogan,” as Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) put it, than how the United States could punish him.
“What the president’s trying to do is have a much broader approach to this thing,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), another Trump ally, said after the White House meeting, suggesting that sanctions-heavy approach only made sense “if you just look at what Turkey’s trying to do now.”
“Look at the broader issues of the entire region and then what’s going on with other major countries, you might get in a different situation,” Perdue continued. “We’re trying to develop allies in the world.”
Turkey would be the first NATO ally to be hit with sanctions by the United States if the government does not attempt to waive punitive measures that Congress passed in 2017 to punish entities for doing business with Russia’s defense industry. Both Republicans and Democrats have pointed out that it is also the first NATO ally that has purchased a major weapons system from Moscow, the power that NATO was formed to protect against.
Earlier this summer, Erdogan said he had received assurances from Trump during the Group of 20 meeting that Turkey would not be punished for accepting the S-400 system.
Instead of sanctions, Perdue said, “there may be some things like free trade agreements being talked about,” noting that such an economic relationship with the United States was important to Turkey.
“There’s a possibility that you have to bring Russia into some kind of conversation about what their position is in the Middle East — they want trade, they want some kind of commerce with us, too,” Perdue said.
Russia has long sought to scale back sanctions that the United States began to impose in 2014, after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The 2017 sanctions bill, in addition to establishing mandatory sanctions on entities doing business with Russia’s defense industry, prevents the president from rolling back Russia sanctions without giving Congress a chance to block his actions.