Sanctions Upend Liberal Narrative on Trump, Turkey and ‘Strongmen’

Actions by the chief executive against Erdoğan are in contrast to his supposed admiration of this authoritarian leader and others

So much for the purported “bromance.”

For much of President Donald Trump’s tenure, liberals have lambasted him for his friendly relationship with Turkey’s increasingly autocratic leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They recoiled when Trump reportedly congratulated the Turkish president for a successful referendum amending his constitution to give him more power.

They lumped Erdoğan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as evidence that Trump prefers dictators to democrats on the global state.

As recently as last month, Trump’s critics went apoplectic over a fist bump he reportedly gave Erdoğan during a summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders. Perhaps they have whiplash after the past few days.

The Trump administration on Wednesday moved to impose sanctions to protest Ankara’s refusal to release Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical Presbyterian pastor whom the country has detained for 21 months on charges of aiding a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

Erdoğan retaliated Saturday, announcing his country was freezing the assets of two U.S. officials.

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The tit-for-tat sanctions represent an unusual level of tension between two NATO allies. But they’re remarkable for another reason — they undercut the narrative that Trump has an unhealthy affection for strongmen.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC) — which actively pushed for the sanctions — told LifeZette that Trump’s critics misunderstood the president’s approach to Erdoğan and foreign policy more generally.

“Part of that is his negotiating style,” said Perkins. “You can’t sit down at the negotiating table in your first, you know, encounter, and pound the table and turn it over. What he’s doing, if you watch him — he is trying to build relationships with some of these bad actors with the hopes of bringing them along and establishing a rapport.”

Perkins added that Trump has conceded nothing and has demonstrated a willingness to turn up pressure when personal diplomacy fails.

Liberals never have seen it that way.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, described the NATO “fist bump” on “CBS This Morning.” He said Trump was frustrated he was not making more progress in getting NATO leaders to raise their defense spending to meet targets set by the alliance.

The president then turned to the Turkish president and said, “Except for Erdoğan over here. He does things the right way,” Bremmer quoted Trump as saying. “And then [Trump] actually fist-bumps the Turkish president,” an appalled Bremmer added.

“Turkey is hardly a liberal democracy at this point,” Bremmer lectured.

It is not the first time Trump’s critics have expressed worry about his relationship  with Erdoğan. Many commentators seized on a comment The Washington Post reported, from an anonymous adviser who said the leaders Trump admired the most are Erdoğan, Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Amazingly, all three of the people listed are authoritarian leaders,” the news site Vox wrote in December.

In a piece entitled “Trump has power envy,” The Washington Post in June argued Trump would have “more reason to admire” Erdoğan because he had eliminated most of the internal checks and balances constraining him.

Liberals have strained to point to a motive for Trump’s alleged coddling of Erdoğan.

“I think that, unlike the previous administration that had these erasable red lines, you know, this administration is sending a message that when we say something, we mean it.”

The Huffington Post, in reporting that federal prosecutors had dropped charges against Turkish security officers accused of beating up protesters in Washington during Erdoğan’s visit to the White House last year, suggested in March that it was all about the money.

“The president has a major business interest in Turkey ― Trump Towers Istanbul,” the website wrote, referencing a Trump project from 2012.

Damon Linker suggested in The Week in June that Trump simply has a soft spot for dictators.

“He clearly prefers their company to that of democratically elected heads of state,” he wrote.

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Robert Repetti, a former fellow at Organizing for Action — which grew out of then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign — insinuated that Trump’s motives are even darker.

“Why would Trump condemn things he would do himself if he could?” he wrote last year on the website Quora. “Trump would love to silence his critics, imprison opposition, and blow up threats he doesn’t understand. He wholeheartedly thinks he’s entitled to profit off … the office of the presidency in any way he sees fit.”

But FRC’s Perkins said he has a great deal more faith in Trump’s actions than in the soothing words of his predecessor.

“The administration is using all of the tools that they have. I mean, they’ve tried a diplomatic course. This is something they’ve been working on for some time,” he said. “I think that, unlike the previous administration that had these erasable red lines, you know, this administration is sending a message that when we say something, we mean it.”

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