WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met Wednesday as relations between the NATO allies have fallen to their lowest point in decades, with Turkey drifting closer to Russia and facing a Washington backlash over its military offensive against Kurds in Syria.
Erdogan and Trump had a difficult agenda for their talks: Turkey's decision to buy a Russian air defense system despite Turkey's membership in NATO and its incursion into neighboring Syria to attack Kurdish forces that have fought with the U.S. against the Islamic State group.
Despite those disputes, Trump said the two countries were poised to increase U.S. goods and services trade with Turkey, which totaled about $24 billion in 2017.
“We're going to be expanding,” Trump said. “We think we can bring trade up very quickly to about $100 billion between our countries.”
The leaders' scheduled afternoon news conference, following a meeting with Republican lawmakers at the White House, would give Trump a stage to counter the first public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry.
Sitting in the Oval Office with Erdogan, Trump said he was too busy to watch the televised hearing on the inquiry, which he called a “hoax.”
Trump defended his decision to invite Erdogan despite Turkey's widely denounced advance into Syria. He said that he and Turkey's president have been “very good friends” for a long time and understand each other's country.
“I understand the problems that they've had, including many people from Turkey being killed in the area that we're talking about and he has to do something about that,” Trump said.
The House last month overwhelmingly passed a bill to sanction senior Turkish officials and its army for the military incursion into Syria. Erdogan sees Kurdish forces in Syria as an extension of a separatist Kurdish group that's been fighting inside Turkey since the 1980s.
“This is not the time or place to be extending hospitality and exchanging niceties with a dictator,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
In the Senate, two Democrats introduced legislation denouncing Turkey's targeting of journalists, political opponents, dissidents, minorities and others.
They said the Turkish government had imprisoned more than 80,000 Turkish citizens, closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds and dismissed or suspended more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs.
In October, Trump moved U.S. troops in Syria out of the way of invading Turkish troops, a decision that critics said amounted to abandoning America's Kurdish allies to be attacked.
“It has upended what was an oasis of stability, damaged U.S. credibility and standing on the world stage and strengthened the hands of Russia, Iran” and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, Shaheen said.
Trump administration officials have said Trump told Turkey not to invade Syria. But when Erdogan insisted, they say, Trump decided to move 28 Green Berets operating on the Turkey-Syria border so they wouldn't be caught in a crossfire between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurds.
Amnesty International recently released a report documenting killings, human rights violations and possible war crimes caused by Turkey-backed forces in northern Syria.
“There has been a callous disregard for civilian lives, including attacks on residential areas,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Over 100,000 people have fled this offensive and there are fears that the displaced are not getting access to food, to clear water, or to medical supplies.”
She said Trump must send a message to Erdogan that these actions and unlawful behavior must stop and that those responsible be held accountable.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Turkey to investigate reported cases of summary executions committed by a Turkish-backed armed group in northern Syria. The U.N. cited video footage showing fighters with the Ahrar al-Sharqiya armed group filming themselves capturing and executing three Kurdish captives on a highway in northern Syria.
Turkey reached truce agreements with Russia and the United States last month that halted the incursion and forced Kurdish fighters to retreat from Turkey's southern border. “The cease-fire is holding very well,” Trump said. “We've been speaking to the Kurds and they seem to be very satisfied.”
But Erdogan claims the Kurds have not vacated border areas and says he will give Trump a list of attacks carried out by Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish-led force.
Trump planned to express concern about Erdogan's purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The U.S. and fellow NATO nations say the S-400 would aid Russian intelligence and compromise a U.S.-led fighter jet program.
The U.S. has since kicked Erdogan out of a multinational program producing components of America's high-tech F-35 fighter jet. In response, Erdogan attended an annual Russian air show this summer in Moscow and expressed interest in buying the latest Russian Su-35 fighter jets.
Trump has not yet decided whether to impose congressional sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase.