Trump-Erdoğan lovefest would likely continue to grow in a second term
It must be the first time in history that a Turkish government is praying for the re-election of a U.S. president.
Donald Trump’s administration has become a safety buoy for the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the past 3-and-a-half years. But if Trump secures a second victory in the elections expected to be held in November, the Trump-Erdoğan relationship may improve even further over the next four years, based on the evidence since early 2017.
Many wondered what the relationship between the Trump administration and Turkey would be like after Trump won the presidential elections in late 2016. It was not clear how the anti-immigrant and populist Trump - who has also adopted a harsh discourse against Islam - and Erdoğan, the most powerful figure of political Islam, would get along.
In June 2016, during U.S. presidential campaigning, Erdoğan said he wanted to erase Trump’s name from Trump’s Istanbul Towers due to his rhetoric against Islam and Muslims. It suggested that the ties between the two would be strained.
However, behind the scenes, it was later understood that Trump's first national security chief, Mike Flynn, had a close lobbying relationship with Ekim Alptekin - a businessman known for his close ties with the Turkish government - starting from August 2016, a month after a brutal coup attempt in Turkey. The potential of Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, the manager of Trump Towers in Istanbul, to forge backdoor links in both Ankara and Washington through the government-linked U.S.-Turkey Business Council (USTBC) was also still unknown.
While Trump was receiving a backlash from many Muslim countries over his decrees - many of which were seen as being "anti-Islam" and "Islamophobic", including a move to ban travel from majority Muslim countries - Erdoğan was singing his praises, even during a meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, in early 2017.
During the first eighteen months of the Trump presidency, Erdoğan was busy engineering two very critical elections under a state of emergency following the coup attempt and weakening the Turkish opposition through spurious terrorism charges. Trump, meanwhile, was grappling with the Russian investigation that accused him of cooperating with the Russian state in the 2016 elections.
During this period, Erdoğan used anti-US and anti-West rhetoric during his election campaigns and had rebuked the West - including the United States - for their relations with Syrian Kurds, as well as perceived ties with the Gülen movement, which Erdoğan has accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt.
Still, Trump sent his top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, to visit and give Erdoğan a boost only two weeks before the referendum to change Turkey’s governing system in April 2017.
Trump gave a subtle blessing to Turkey’s second Syria operation, Operation Olive Branch, to seize Afrin at the beginning of 2018. But when Erdoğan prolonged the hostage game over the imprisoned evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, Trump - who also needed a victory before mid-term elections in November of 2018 - forced Turkey to release him at the next hearing in early October.
However, even during the welcoming home of Brunson in the Oval Office - which Trump had wanted before the November 2018 mid-terms - the U.S. president only had positive and complimentary words for Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s miscalculations in hoping to exchange the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülenist movement, for Brunson cost him dearly. What’s more, Erdoğan also failed to see the importance of Brunson - who had been held in Turkish jail for two years after the coup attempt in 2016 over fantastical charges - to Trump’s loyal voting base. Other arrested consulate workers or NATO scientist Serkan Gölge, along with thousands of other Turkish citizens, did not arise as much of an issue for Washington.
However, the two leaders have developed a stronger relationship since the Brunson row, and 2019 appeared to be a better year for U.S.-Turkey relations.
In previous years, tens of thousands of people were jailed in Turkey and Turkish democracy saw a sharp decline in every single democracy index in the world. But neither Trump or his administration said a word about the rapid decline in Turkish democracy. Trump’s ‘’America First’’ slogan has no room for human rights abuses in countries like Turkey, which is a NATO ally.
In June 2019, Trump met with Erdoğan in Tokyo, Japan on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. At the meeting, Trump - as if reading straight from Turkish talking points - told the world how the previous U.S. administration under Barack Obama had mistreated their Turkish ally and made a mistake by refusing to sell Patriot missiles to Ankara. That is why, Trump elaborated, Ankara had been left with no choice but to purchase the Russian-made S-400 defence system.
Still, the same Trump administration - in the very same month - kicked its Turkish ally out of the NATO F-35 fighter programme due to Ankara’s procurement of the Russian missiles.
When the Trump administration killed the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, the U.S. president thanked Erdoğan for his cooperation. It is not yet clear what kind of cooperation the Erdoğan government had given to the operation. Only a few weeks before the Baghdadi killing, Trump cleared the way for a Turkish incursion into northeast Syria with a single tweet, despite opposition by all major U.S institutions. Some have questioned whether these two events in northern Syrian could be connected.
While the two leaders frequently held phone calls, the U.S. president also hosted his Turkish counterpart in Washington in November 2019, despite large protests against him in Washington; in fact one of largest protests against any foreign head of state in the history of the city.
Then the impeachment of Trump hit the Republican-dominated senate wall and was halted. Trump has been since presenting the senate’s decision as proof of his innocence, and recently began counter-attacks against his perceived enemies, namely Obama-era officials.
Things were really going for Trump in early January, especially when looking at low unemployment figures or the stock market. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
It is still too early to predict which way the U.S. elections in November will go. However, if Trump secures a second term, it is clear that duo will likely forge an even closer relationship.
One of the thorniest issues between the two countries has been the F-35s. Trump has been using the Turkish talking points on the issue, saying that the Turks are right to protest, but so far he has failed to overcome the U.S. institutions’ opposition to readmitting Ankara back into the F-35 programme.
In fact, Trump talked about the F-35s twice just last week. First, on May 14, Trump said that parts of the F-35 jets were being made all over the world, including Turkey.
“The problem is, if we have a problem with a country, you can’t make the jet,” Trump said, adding that part of the “main body” of the jet is made in Turkey. “We have a good relationship with President Erdoğan, you know with me. What happens if we don’t have [a good relationship]? They’re going to say ‘well we’re not going to give you this.'”
The second mention was on May 19, after the cabinet meeting in which Trump argued that whoever wants to buy the jets, he would like to sell them to them, and sell them fast, mocking the reporter for mentioning human rights in the follow-up question. The question was about the congressional condition on human rights standards regarding the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, but Trump could just as easily have been describing issues regarding Turkey.
In Washington we are seeing leaks against the rivals of Trump, instead of the other way around as it was in the first two years of his presidency: be it Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s leaked conversations with former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, or White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s leaked email, or Trump’s DNI acting director revealing the list of Obama officials who reportedly requested the unmasking of Flynn.
While gaining loyalists within U.S. institutions for his own administration, Trump also appears to be gaining more weight and experience in foreign policy. The Pentagon and other critical institutions are being pushed toward a more accommodating posture when it comes to Trump's strong convictions, and it remains to be seen whether one of those convictions, which happens to be selling the jets to Turkey, can be accommodated as well.
When considering the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. economy, Trump might be more persuasive going forward in arguing that selling billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry to a NATO ally would bring back more jobs to Americans.
We still do not know what exactly attaches Trump to Erdoğan. Perhaps he simply admires powerful politicians, since most observers fail to see what exactly the U.S. is getting in return while Trump has been busy giving favours to Erdoğan. The Trump family, after leaving the office in 2020 or 2024, will likely focus back on the business world again - exploring opportunities all over the world, including Erdoğan's Turkey, assuming he is still ruling the country.
Even though Trump has been able to prevent the worst from happening to the Erdoğan government, it should be noted that he was unable to deliver many favours.
For example, while Trump has been able to prevent sanctions on Turkey for purchasing the S-400s, he failed to keep Turkey in the F-35 alliance. Trump could not deliver Fethullah Gülen to Ankara, who has been declared as an archenemy by Erdoğan.
Trump cleared the way for Erdoğan to take another chunk from northeastern Syria in September 2019 with his tweets, but he could not cut the U.S. relationship with the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces - even though Erdoğan declared them no different than the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed organisation that has fought for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey for over four decades.
Trump has been able to prevent big U.S. Treasury fines hitting the Turkey's second largest lender Halkbank over its central role during a scheme to circumvent sanctions on Iran between 2011 and 2015. However, Trump was unable to stop a fresh indictment against the bank, with the case currently ongoing in New York.
Erdoğan has been asking for help by sending letters to Trump since early April to open the U.S Federal reserve swap lines for Turkey’s Central Bank - to no avail.
Despite all of his unfulfilled promises, Trump has proven himself to be a great and reliable friend to Erdoğan. Most recently, U.S. Special Envoy James Jeffrey in various platforms and his aide Col. Richard Outzen appeared to be openly supporting Turkish forces against the Russian-backed forces both in Syria’s Idlib and in Libya.
In 2017, once Turkey had declared its intentions to purchase S-400s from Russia, some argued that - even if that were to happen - Turkey would not be excluded from the F-35 programme because it has been a 20-year partnership and Turkey had paid all of its dues.
Yet, in the Spring of 2019, as an official letter first revealed by Ahval showed, Turkey was frozen out of the programme.
Now, most argue that Turkey would not be readmitted to the F-35 programme as long as S-400s are not returned or sent away.
But who knows what an overconfident and ever more powerful Trump might do in a second term?