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Erdogan’s call for boycott of U.S.-made electronics intensifies dispute with Trump administration

A woman checks the currency exchange rates at a shop in Istanbul on Aug. 13, 2018. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that Turkey would boycott U.S.-made electronic products, escalating a feud with the Trump administration that has contributed to the rapid decline of the Turkish currency.

The currency, the lira, tumbled against the dollar last week when President Trump said he was doubling tariffs on imported Turkish metals to punish Erdogan for refusing to free an American pastor on trial in Turkey. The argument over the pastor, Andrew Brunson, has sparked the worst crisis between the NATO allies in decades and led to fears that Turkey’s economic problems could cause a new global financial crisis.

“We are going to apply a boycott on America’s electronic products,” Erdogan said Tuesday during a televised speech, adding that there were alternatives, produced by South Korean or Turkish companies. He did not say when the boycott would start or how it would be enforced.   

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“If they have the iPhone, there is Samsung on the other side,” he said, referring to the phone by Apple that became closely associated with Erdogan two years ago when he used the device’s FaceTime feature to rally citizens during a coup attempt. 

The Turkish president, who is voluble even in his country’s calmest moments, has been outspoken as the lira has tumbled, repeatedly attributing the depreciation to sabotage by outside powers and insisting that the fundamentals of the Turkish economy are sound.

His comments, however, have failed to quell a crisis that economists say is largely self-inflicted, owing to an overheated economy and the debt exposure of Turkey’s companies and banks. After days of heavy losses, the currency stabilized Tuesday, a day after Turkey’s central bank said it was taking steps to ensure financial stability and as the finance minister announced he would hold a conference call with international investors later this week.  

Turkey’s dispute with the Trump administration over the fate of Brunson has poured fuel on the crisis. 

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Brunson, who is from North Carolina and has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was arrested nearly two years ago and accused of aiding terrorist groups. He has asserted his innocence, and U.S. officials have dismissed the charges as baseless.

Last month, a Turkish court ordered Brunson’s release from prison but placed him under house arrest, angering the Trump administration, which had demanded that he be allowed to return to the United States.   

On Tuesday, Brunson’s Turkish attorney petitioned the court for his client’s release from house arrest. A previous appeal had been denied. In a statement on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara called for Brunson’s release “without delay” and said that the charge d’affaires, Jeffrey Hovenier, had visited with Brunson and his wife, Norine Brunson.  

For Turkey’s citizens, lashed to the whims of the bouncing currency, the crisis has meant calculating the losses to their businesses, tightening budgets at home and reevaluating plans to vacation or move overseas. Some had answered Erdogan’s calls to sell their dollars or gold to prop up the lira with public displays of solidarity — by burning dollars, for instance, as a matter of national pride.

Others quietly seethed.

At a tobacco shop in Istanbul, the lira’s fall had raised prices on some products by 30 percent, according to Firat, the manager, who asked that his full name not be published amid an ongoing government crackdown on people the authorities accuse of spreading rumors about the currency’s slide.  

“It is not something that is in our hands,” he said, blaming “high officials.” Customers understood, but it mattered little. “I have a customer who normally buys two cigars every day,” Firat said. “Now he buys only one, or doesn’t come at all.”  

As he spoke, Erdogan’s image appeared on a television in the store. He was delivering another speech. “Every time he talks, the dollar goes up,” Firat said, and he muted the sound.

He was not happy with the announcement of a boycott of American products. He already uses Turkish-made home appliances, but when it comes to personal electronics, like a phone or a computer, he prefers foreign, including American, brands. “A person always wants the best that they can get,” Firat said. But he did not have a foreign currency account, putting those items out of reach for the moment. 

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