Donald Trump held a joint press conference with Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday afternoon and it went fine, all things considered.
Of course, “fine” is an (extremely) relative term. Lawmakers delivered a bipartisan rebuke of Ankara’s actions in Syria late last month and this week asked Trump to rescind Erdogan’s invitation to Washington, citing Turkey’s bloody cross-border incursion. Today also marked the first day of public impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill.
In short, the list of things that could have gone wrong in a joint press event was long, especially when you consider how much has come to light over the past month about Rudy Giuliani’s backdoor dealings with Ankara, and efforts to lobby the White House for the extradition of Erdogan’s archenemy Fethullah Gulen.
Trump and Erdogan each delivered painfully long opening statements after making reporters wait nearly an hour on the event to start. Trump showered Erdogan with praise (going so far as to say “I’m a big fan”) and referred only in passing to the vexing S-400 issue, which the US president called a “challenge”.
The Q&A was limited to friendly queries. In fact, Trump quite literally demanded “a friendly person from Turkey” before taking an overtly ridiculous question from a Turkish “reporter” who conveniently smeared Barack Obama’s foreign policy and made sure to emphasize that the PKK are terrorists.
“A lot of that is definition – what’s your definition of the various groups within the Kurds”, Trump fumbled, while attempting to walk an impossibly fine line between not irritating Erdogan and not adding insult to injury for America’s Kurdish allies, who suffered a bitter (not to mention deadly) betrayal last month.
Trump raised more than a few eyebrows when he insisted Erdogan has a “great relationship with the Kurds”, a contention the Turkish president tried to bolster by distinguishing between “terrorists” (who “have no nationality, no ethnicity and no flag”) and regular people.
Erdogan also spent what seemed like half an hour elaborating on why the US should hand over Gulen in response to an unrelated question about Trump’s already infamous “devil” letter.
Ultimately, the event went smoothly because it was tightly controlled. Trump took just two questions from US reporters, one from Fox’s John Roberts and the other from OANN.
If you’re wondering how the OANN exchange went, it was predictably silly. “First I’d like to just start out today and get your general reaction to the impeachment hearings on the Hill”, a reporter who looked like she walked right out of a Pantene commercial said.
“Are you talking about the witch hunt?”, Trump wondered. “Is that what you mean? Is that what you’re talking about?”
“I hear it’s a joke”, he said, of the spiraling inquiry into the Ukraine affair.
To be clear, there was nothing funny about today’s impeachment proceedings. But what definitely is “a joke”, is inviting Erdogan to the White House a month after he ignored US warnings not to commit a mini-genocide, and then holding a press conference where the only people who are allowed to ask questions are Fox, OANN and a Turkish “reporter” who may or may not have been rehearsed by Erdogan.