Senator Robert Menendez. Photo via his Office
November 12, 2019 on the Senate Floor
When President Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House this week, he will be welcoming a known authoritarian, human rights abuser and friend to Putin whose behavior increasingly runs counter to the interests of the United States and our allies.
It’s yet another strategic mistake and terrible misuse of the power of the presidency.
In recent years, the President of Turkey has made a series of decisions to part ways with NATO, with the United States, and with basic principles of democracy.
And it’s stunning to think that any American President would legitimize Erdogan’s harmful policies by welcoming him to the Oval Office.
M. President, this meeting is a mistake, plain and simple.
I can only hope that instead of yielding to Erdogan policies that are so squarely at odds with U.S. interests, President Trump treats this misguided meeting as more than just a photo op with yet another dictator.
The President should instead use this visit to actually stand up for America, for our principles, and for our allies.
He can do this by raising the many serious questions that Turkey has yet to address. And I would like to use this opportunity to outline ten critical questions, each of which deserve real answers.
Question number one. Will Turkey reverse course from Erdogan’s decision to buy the S-400 air defense system from Russia?
The president’s national security advisor claims that the Administration is very “upset” about Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 weapons system.
Well, “upset” is not a policy. And it falls well short of the Trump Administration’s legal obligations.
Under the CAATSA sanctions law, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 is a significant and sanctionable transaction. These sanctions should have been imposed in July, when Turkey first took delivery of the S-400s.
And yet, by failing to implement the legal requirements of CAATSA, President Trump has done lasting damage to U.S. credibility, to the integrity of our sanctions, and to the rule of law.
Is it so much to ask that the President of the United States FOLLOW THE LAW? He can start by imposing CAATSA sanctions when Erdogan is in Washington.
We know that the Justice Department has finally brought charges in the case. But if the Administration followed the law, they would have already imposed sanctions on Halkbank and sent a message to other actors who seek to evade Iran sanctions.
I understand that one of Erdogan’s top priorities for his visit to the White House is secure relief for Halkbank.
M. President, that is THE OPPOSITE of what the law requires. And I hope that President Trump shows some backbone when Erdogan asks him for yet another favor.
Let’s not forget that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani represented Reza Zarrab, one of the players in Halkbank’s sanctions evasion.
It seems the President Trump likes to talk tough about his sanctions policy on Iran. And yet all the tough talk SUDDENLY STOPS when the interests of his authoritarian pals or his personal lawyer are on the line.
The UN reports that more than 200,000 people have been internally displaced from the so-called “safe zone” controlled by the Turks.
Some of those displaced have reported that Turkish-backed forces have beaten civilians and conducted kidnappings and summary executions.
With the pullout of American troops, Turkey was effectively given license to commit these abuses and unleash unspeakable crimes. This is ethnic cleansing.
So many in this chamber have said Never Again to this kind of horror in the past. Can we depend on President Trump to do the same?
Last week, I introduced a binding resolution that would require the State Department to report on Turkish human rights abuses in Syria. State’s findings could have a direct bearing on arms sales to Turkey. Meanwhile, we have additional legislation to hold Turkey countable that’s been waiting for a vote for weeks.
But, where are we? Did we pass the Risch-Menendez bill on Turkey? No.
Did we pass the House version of that legislation? No.
Day after day, week after week, we sit on our hands, too timid to act on any legislation that might upset Erdogan while he is in town. What ever happened to standing up for our American values?
This weekend National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien declared that “there’s no place for ethnic cleansing, for war crimes in the 21st century.”
Will President Trump deliver that message to Erdogan on Wednesday?
Will he seek to maintain any shred of dignity and U.S. credibility on human rights issues? Or will he let Erdogan engage in these horrific human rights abuses without consequence?
Turkish navy ships routinely violate the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus and may take measures in Famagusta that would set the peace process on the island back even further.
Turkey also routinely violates airspace Greece’s airspace, brazenly disregarding Greece’s sovereignty and the safety of Greek pilots and those on the ground below.
Has President Trump uttered a word of support for our Greek friends? Will he affirm America’s relationship with Greece during Erdogan’s visit to the White House? The EU has developed a sanctions framework that would address Turkey’s actions in the Cypriot EEZ. Will Donald Trump follow suit?
In addition to buying the S-400, Turkey is now in talks to purchase Russian Sukhoi (sook- hoy) aircraft.
Last week, Erdogan felt the need to coordinate with President Putin prior to coming to the U.S. According to Reuters, he said he would hold a phone call with the Russian President over the weekend to “form the basis” of his talks with President Trump.
Aside from perhaps Hungary, I can’t imagine any other leader in NATO coordinating with Putin before a conversation with an American president.
Some say that we need to tread carefully with Turkey lest we push it into Russia’s arms.
PUSH? Seems to me that Erdogan JUMPED into Putin’s arms long ago with no provocation from us.
More journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than any other country in the world. In the world.
Under Article Two of the NATO charter, member countries commit to a certain set of democratic principles. This the basis of the alliance.
At its core, this is why we commit to the mutual defense of these allies. They share our values, our belief in human freedom, in democracy and the rule of law.
Yet all of Erdogan’s actions over the past few years run afoul of the democratic principles that define the NATO alliance.
I know that the president does not like to stand up for democracy at home or abroad.
But I hope that this meeting will be different and that he will finally come to understand what was clear to so many presidents before him, Republican and Democratic alike — that how a leader treats his own people is indicative for how they will act on the world stage.
An authoritarian at home is an authoritarian abroad. And both should matter to the United States.
The last time Erdogan visited in 2017, his goons did just that, resulting in criminal charges against more than half a dozen members of his security detail.
During his meeting, President Trump should insist that Erdogan hand over those guards implicated in the 2017 attacks.
It is clear that Erdogan’s visit will again attract demonstrators – and rightly so.
Well, Erdogan may not believe in the right of peaceful protest in his home country. But I hope that Erdogan learned his lesson– that here in the United States, the right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in our Constitution and core to our democracy.
And I hope that President Trump clearly reminds him of this fact.
Will he advocate for the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who continues to work and live under pressure from the Turkish government?
#Turkey has always been a complicated and difficult US ally. It was long treated with great “hope” – that it could become a modern, democratic Muslim country with a Western orientation and Western allegiances https://t.co/bA6cVLCfwX
— Endy Zemenides (@Zemenides) November 5, 2019
Now, to be fair, Turkey is not the only country funneling weapons to clients in Libya in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1970.
But the grinding, protracted conflict heightened by these weapons is destabilizing North Africa and allowing for the trafficking and exploitation of desperate migrants and refugees.
Will President Trump call on all outside powers, including Turkey, to engage in Libya with diplomacy rather than weapons transfers and to encourage the warring parties to find a political solution to the conflict?
Will he stand by our ally Israel, or will his personal interests and affinity for strongmen win out once again?
The President says he wants to put ‘America First.’
Yet on every one of these ten issues, Trump has cowered to the demands of Ankara and Moscow.
Look, Trump can meet with Erdogan – that is his decision and his prerogative.
But on these and so many other issues, President Trump’s actions do not represent the values of the American people or their representatives here in Congress.
He does not represent those who support holding Russia accountable.
He does not represent those who stand against war crimes in Syria.
He does not represent those who want to see a democratic Turkey.
Despite our objections, President Trump will welcome Erdogan to the Oval Office.
President Zelensky is a true friend to the United States, on the front lines of the struggle for democracy in his country. He’s standing up to Russian aggression and corruption. He’s respecting the free press. He’s working to strengthen democratic institutions.
President Zelensky, put simply, everything that President Erdogan of Turkey is not. And yet, it is Turkey that President Trump continues to admire, and Ukraine that he continues to demonize.
Something is wrong here, M. President.
We should not have to cross our fingers and hope that any American President stands up for our values, holds our adversaries accountable, and does the right thing when it matters most.
It should not be a question. It should be a given. And yet all I can do at this time is hope President Trump will reverse course and challenge bad behavior of an authoritarian like Erdogan rather than celebrate it.