Worst Moments From a Trump-Erdogan Press Conference That Went Off the Rails

Trump says Erdogan has 'a great relationship with the Kurds'

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US President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) take part in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019
US President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) take part in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019Credit: Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday he had returned a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump in which Trump urged him to halt Turkey's cross-border offensive into northeast Syria.

The revelation was one of many bizarre moments from the highly anticipated and controversial visit of Turkey's authoritarian leader to Washington this week.

In October, Trump threatened to "obliterate" Turkey's economy and sent Erdogan a letter on the day the offensive started, warning him he could be responsible for "slaughtering thousands of people."

"Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!" Trump wrote.

The letter was released as Trump battled to control the political fallout after his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, clearing the way for Turkey's operation against Washington's Kurdish allies.

Trump Says He and Erdogan Have a Great Relationship With Kurds

In another odd moment, Trump encouraged Erdogan to call on a Turkish journalist for a question. “Would you like to pick somebody?” Erdogan responded in Turkish, and Trump said: “A friendly person from Turkey, friendly. Only friendly reporters. We like to see, there aren’t too many of them around.”

The moment was noteworthy as Trump, who only took questions from right-wing news outlets OANN and Fox News, indirectly highlighted Erdogan's crackdown on freedom of the press in Turkey. 

Lindsey Graham reportedly joked to ABC’s Jonathan Karl during the press conference, “There aren’t any others left.” 

Trump also sparked controversy when he said he believes Erdogan has “a great relationship with the Kurds.”

“Many Kurds live currently in Turkey, and they’re happy and taken care of,” Trump said, “including health care and education and other things.”

Trump's eagerness to pull U.S. forces out of Syria also aligned with Erdogan's plan to send troops across the border to drive back the Kurdish People's Protection Units (known as the YPG). The U.S. has since signaled it has evidence of war crimes committed by Turkish-backed forces in Syria.

Erdogan has previously said he could no longer keep up with Trump's blizzard of tweets.

Russia's S-400

Erdogan said Washington was not right to propose that Ankara get rid of the Russian S-400 missile defences it purchased, calling it an infringement of sovereign rights, according to Turkish media.

Trump urged Erdogan to abandon the S-400 systems that began arriving in Turkey in July despite threats of sanctions from Washington.

Asked after his meeting with Trump whether Turkey would consider not activating the S-400s, Erdogan told reporters Ankara cannot harm its relations with Russia. He also again held out the option of buying U.S. Patriot defenses.

"We said, 'We see the proposal to remove the S-400s completely while buying the Patriots as an infringement of our sovereign right and certainly do not find it right,'" he was quoted as saying by broadcasters.

"This is the most binding element: we have some strategic efforts with Russia," Erdogan said, adding the Turkstream natural gas pipeline, which begins in Russia and runs through Turkey, will start delivering gas to Europe.

"I cannot abandon the S-400s because of Patriots now. If you are going to give us Patriots, give them," he was quoted as saying.

Largely thanks to good relations between the two presidents, Turkey has so far avoided U.S. sanctions that by law should be triggered by the S-400 deal. But the United States has banned sales of F-35 fighter jets to Ankara and removed it from a multinational program to produce the warplane.

Erdogan said he saw a much more positive approach to the F-35 issue from Trump.