The public bromance between President Donald Trump and Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan hit a major snag this week with the mutual suspension of visa services between the two countries.
It comes at a time when Trump already has a full diplomatic plate with Iran and North Korea and is hobbled by his dysfunctional relationship with the nation’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The Turkish leader has consistently been high on the list of the tough foreign leaders Trump admires - alongside Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and China’s Xi Jinping. While many in the world, including the previous U.S. administration have criticized such regimes for heavy-handed authoritarian tactics and problematic human rights records, Trump has frequently offered praise for their “strong” style of leadership.
In the case of Erdogan and Turkey, there have been concerns dating back to the campaign and transition, that Trump’s positive stance towards Turkey are linked to commercial interests there which could the U.S. vulnerable to pressure by the powerful Turkish leader.
In 2015, Trump himself even admitted dealing with Turkey might be an issue because of the project.
“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said at the time. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.”
His comfort level with Erdogan can be traced back to the fact that the Turkish leader honored him by headlining the 2012 unveiling of the Istanbul project together with Trump and his partners in the venture, the Dogan family, who have paid millions in licensing fees since then for the Trump name.
But last year, a report in Newsweek revealed that Erdogan had fostered early plans to leverage the mogul’s business ties to his advantage even before Trump’s inauguration.
When the Turkish military attempted a coup in July 2016, Erdogan blamed the uprising on an aging Muslim cleric who lives in exile in the United States, Fethullah Gulen, and unsuccessfully lobbied the Obama administration to extradite him.
Ergogan made it clear from Trump’s election that he expected the new administration to drop the White House’s insistence on requiring more evidence that would prove Gulen's involvement in the coup effort in order to justify his extradition. When a veteran employee of Dogan Trump’s Turkish partners was detained on flimsy allegations of being linked to Gulen, causing Dogan stock shares to fall, it sent a message that Erdogan had the power to hit the Trump family’s pocketbook.
Whether related to their past history or his businesses, Trump has repeatedly lavished warm words on Erdogan, congratulating him on winning the controversial referendum that boosted his grip on power in April, and showered the Turkish leader with compliments when he visited the White House in May, calling him an “ally” against Islamic extremism. Erdogan returned the praise, saying that Trump’s win in the presidential race was a “legendary victory.”
Erdogan’s sunny reception at the White House was marred when nine people were injured during a protest outside of the residence of the Turkish ambassador by Erdogan's security detail and supporters. The damage was compounded in the aftermath when footage that was later released showed Erdogan watching his bodyguards assault the protesters.
The incident returned to news last month when Erdogan claimed in a television interview that Trump told him in a phone conversation on September 9th “that he was sorry” about what happened in the spring and “he told me that he was going to follow up on this issue when we come to the United States within the framework of an official visit. The protesters were insulting us, and they were screaming and shouting. The police failed to intervene properly."
The White House flatly denied the Turkish leader’s account, saying “there was no apology.”
But there was little sign of the discord when the two leaders met at the UN as recently as September 21, when Erdogan called the president “my dear friend Donald.”
Trump was even more effusive, saying "We have a great friendship as countries and I think we're right now as close as we've ever been," and that the Turkish leader “has evolved very strongly, and frankly he’s getting very high marks.”
Presumably, Erdogan’s marks dropped in Trump’s grading book following the arrest of the U.S. consular official and the “invitation” of a second official to the prosecutor’s office which led to the move by the U.S. to suspend non-immigrant visa services, a move that was quickly reciprocated by the Turks.
The U.S.-Turkey clash highlights a built-in tension when it comes to Trump’s fan-boy penchant for “strong leaders.” Such leaders see his eagerness to bond with them as an opportunity to push the envelope and test the limits of his friendship - in Erdogan’s case it has emboldened him to arrest the consul employees, just after he suggested swapping Gulen for a jailed evangelical pastor, one of several Americans he has detained in what is increasingly looking like systematic hostage-taking to serve his own diplomatic ends .
But the visa crisis, just a day after it unfolded, seemed to take the edge off of Erdogan’s boldness. He has far more to lose than Trump from the discord. The tumbling shares on Turkey’s stock market and the potential damage to its already-hurting tourism industry means that long-term, a stand-off with the U.S. could mean economic ruin - the Turkish currency reached a record low on Monday.
It was telling that on the same day, the Turkish president used words like “saddening” and "upsetting” to describe the situation. Presumably this is a sign that Erdogan has blinked first and is looking for ways to de-escalate the situation, so that the two leaders can get back to the far more pleasant business of praising one another.
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