The two leaders were to hold several hours of meetings, including lunch, before giving a joint news conference.
While Congress listened to evidence against Trump from two diplomats in the impeachment inquiry, the US president met Erdogan on the White House’s South Lawn, together with a military honor guard, before heading straight to the Oval Office.
In the run-up to Erdogan’s arrival, Trump did not tune into the nationally televised impeachment hearings, because he was “too busy,” he told reporters.
If Trump was ignoring the drama on Capitol Hill, he was also turning a deaf ear to opposition from many in Congress, including in his own Republican party, to rolling out the red carpet for Erdogan.
The US-Turkish relationship has been under severe strain following Erdogan’s ordering of an October offensive against US-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Trump ordered US troops stationed in the border area to withdraw ahead of the Turkish invasion, while exhorting Erdogan in an extraordinarily undiplomatic letter to avoid too much bloodshed.
“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Trump wrote in the letter, which was reportedly thrown by Erdogan into the trash.
Despite the letter, Trump’s withdrawal of the US soldiers effectively gave fellow-NATO member Turkey a green light for what appears to be an extended occupation of a large swath of Syria.
This outraged many in Congress, which saw the move as an abandonment of the Kurds, who died in large numbers while fighting alongside US forces against Islamic State jihadists in the area.
The reshuffling of forces in the region was also criticized in Washington as a boon for Russian ambitions.
“Given this situation, we believe that now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the United States, and we urge you to rescind this invitation,” a bipartisan group of legislators wrote to Trump last week in a letter made public Monday.
Trump was defiant Wednesday, saying: “We have been friends for a long time.”
Russian missiles –
On top of the Syria mess, Turkey’s role in NATO is under question following Erdogan’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.
Washington has excluded Turkey from the F-35 stealth warplane program over the purchase, creating even more tension in the troubled Western alliance. Erdogan has responded by suggesting he could instead buy Russian warplanes as well.
A senior White House official, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged the high tension but said Trump wanted to find solutions.
“This is nearly a 70-year alliance. It has helped both of our countries through very, very dark times. We are not going to throw it away lightly if there is a way forward,” the official said.
Trump needs to avoid antagonizing the Republicans who will be voting on his fate in case of an impeachment trial.
But those legislators have little love for Erdogan and the feeling is likely mutual.
The House of Representatives showed its displeasure with Turkey in October by voting to recognize the mass destruction of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
Modern-day Turkey continues to deny the accusation of genocide, saying Armenians were merely among the many other victims of World War I. The vote infuriated Erdogan.
– Protesters beaten up –
The State Department defended the invitation to Erdogan, saying the complex issues make face-to-face talks important.
“Don’t look at these things as rewards, they are the execution of diplomacy,” an official said.
But there will be tension to spare even beyond the Syrian Kurds and the S-400s.
Washington is angry over the long-term detention of Turkish citizens working for US consulates, while Ankara continues to push hard for the extradition of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan claims engineered a failed 2016 coup.
Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney raised another point of contention: the ugly scenes during Erdogan’s last Washington visit, in 2017, when his bodyguards beat up protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
“The Erdogan regime’s use of violence against civilians anywhere is inhumane, uncivilized, and unacceptable,” she wrote in a letter demanding that the State Department bar any of the “thugs” involved from returning.