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Trump, Erdogan Have 'Frank' Discussion About Syria

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump meet with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, Emine Erdogan, outside the White House on Wednesday.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump meet with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, Emine Erdogan, outside the White House on Wednesday.

Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET

President Trump had what he called a "wonderful and very productive" meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, at the same time as House impeachment hearings got underway on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

It was the first meeting between the two presidents since Turkey undertook a military offensive in northern Syria that angered U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Trump opened the door to the Turkish incursion when he abruptly announced he would be pulling U.S. troops from that part of Syria after a phone call with Erdogan in early October.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly condemned these moves by Trump and Erdogan. Some have argued that Trump should not have given Erdogan the honor of a White House visit in light of Turkey's actions in Syria.

In a joint news conference following their meeting, Trump acknowledged that the cease fire in northern Syria was "complicated" but said it continues to hold and "is moving forward at a very rapid clip."

Trump told reporters he was "too busy" to watch the first day of televised impeachment hearings, and later said "I hear it's a joke."

Trump took the unusual step of inviting a group of Republican senators to meet with Erdogan in the Oval Office on Wednesday, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jim Risch of Idaho, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Rick Scott of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.

In the news conference, Erdogan criticized resolutions approved by the House of Representatives last month, one which labeled the the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century as "genocide," and a separate measure imposing sanctions on Turkish officials. Erdogan said they "deeply hurt the Turkish nation."

He also said it was "unacceptable" that Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric is allowed to live in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan claims Gülen plotted to overthrow him, and wants him extradited to Turkey.

While Trump has clashed with Erdogan at points, he has mostly embraced a partnership with the Turkish leader. "I'm a big fan of the president," Trump said, adding that the alliance between the United States and Turkey can help provide security and stability in the Middle East.

Trump has dismissed the notion that the U.S. has an obligation to permanently protect Kurdish forces, which have been allied with the U.S. against the Islamic State. Turkey considers these Kurdish fighters to be terrorists and says the U.S. should end its partnership with them.

While a cease-fire agreement was reached a few weeks ago, Heather Conley, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the full implementation of the deal remains uncertain.

"This is going to be very difficult for the foreseeable future," said Conley, who is director of CSIS's Europe Program. "They may declare success about this cease-fire and the safety zone, but quite frankly, I think there are more questions being raised than success."

Trump and Erdogan said they discussed the fate of the Islamic State fighters detained in Syria. Kurdish forces had been guarding these Islamic State militants.

They also talked about the purchase by Turkey of a Russian S-400 missile system. The U.S. says the Russian system poses a threat to NATO aircraft. In response, the U.S. has barred Turkey from buying U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets. Trump said the system creates "serious challenges" that the two nations "hopefully can resolve."

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.