Turkish media paints White House visit as Erdoğan triumph over Trump

Turkish media are seizing on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s comments that President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE had “no reaction” to his returning the American leader’s notorious letter to him, saying it shows a clear victory over Trump.

A headline in Sabah Daily, a pro-government media outlet, said that international media were reporting that Erdoğan returned the “scandalous” letter to Trump and the American president was “silent.”

The Turkish president was careful not push his criticism of Trump too far during a briefing with reporters following the two leaders’ summit, but he did use his platform to attack his detractors in the U.S. Congress.

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One headline in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily quoted the Turkish leader talking about Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans GOP member urges Graham to subpoena Schiff, Biden phone records Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators MORE (R-S.C.): “I told him what he needed, he learned his lesson.”

Graham was one of five senators invited into the Oval Office meeting with Erdoğan. He pushed back on the Turkish president’s claims that U.S. Kurdish allies in Syria are terrorists.

Erdoğan, speaking in Turkish at a press conference with Trump on Wednesday, made a point of highlighting the letter. He said he had brought Trump’s Oct. 9 letter from Trump back to the White House to return it.

Trump’s letter, written in a decidedly non-presidential tone, warned Erdoğan he’d be remembered as a devil if he didn’t back off his planned offensive in Syria to clear out Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later,” stated the letter, which was widely mocked at the time as offensive and undiplomatic.

Erdoğan’s statement that he had returned the letter to Trump contradicted earlier reports that the Turkish leader had thrown the correspondence in the garbage upon receipt.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said Erdoğan’s remarks are meant to send a message in Turkey.

“Erdoğan really is a very cunning politician, so he is speaking in a way, when translated into English, let’s say harmless comments,” he said. “But when his loyalists listen in Turkish, in Turkey, they can be interpreted as Erdoğan dominating Trump, or even insulting Trump.”

Erdoğan also told Turkish media that Trump was “very impressed” with a video he showed in the Oval Office. It was described by Republican senators as “propaganda” that sought to tie Kurdish forces in Syria with terrorist actions by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey maintains that Syrian Kurdish groups are an offshoot of the PKK, an internationally designated terrorist organization.

“It was very much a propaganda video," Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstRepublicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members Congress braces for chaotic December Senate roundtable showcases importance and needs of women entrepreneurs MORE (R-Iowa) told The Hill on Thursday.

The five GOP senators who took part in the Oval Office meeting all have expressed strong criticism over Turkey’s recent actions. Erdoğan told reporters that Trump was giving him the opportunity to “convince” the senators of Turkey’s position and for Erdoğan to “make them comfortable.”

Erdoğan also accused U.S. lawmakers in the House and Senate as a unified force working to harm relations between him and Trump, in part by passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide and a bill calling for sanctions on Turkey over its Syria offensive.

Turkish media reported that Congress’s support of the Kurds is supporting terrorism.

“They basically are tying all Congress members who are critical of Erdoğan as terrorism supporters, as well as those who are opposed to Trump,” said Erdemir, the former Turkish parliamentarian.

Mohamed Fahmy, CEO of The Investigative Journal, said the perception presented by Turkish media of a successful visit by Erdoğan over Trump fuels anti-American feelings in Turkey and reinforces conspiracy theories that the U.S. supports terrorism.

“Erdoğan continues to fuel anti-US rhetoric among the Turkish population and continues to market the idea that the coup in 2016 was US-led,” Fahmy said. “That is his way to invoke the patriotism card that he uses well during elections to be able to survive.”

Erdoğan also touted continuing discussions on Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 Russian missile defense system, meant to trigger U.S. sanctions that have yet to be implemented.

“Erdoğan will not give up its Russian missile defense systems despite the threat of U.S. sanctions, but Erdoğan will still push to buy American Patriot systems to bolster Turkey's air defenses,” Fahmy said.

In his briefing with reporters, Erdoğan called having the S-400 and Patriot missiles “a versatile defense system.”

Maintaining a strong relationship with Trump, and by extension the U.S., secures Erdoğan’s political future and shores up support for his actions in the Middle East.

“Trump was giving him a platform in the White House to send a clear signal to his domestic audience in Turkey that he is still Turkey’s best hope for global prominence,” said Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East security fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

Erdoğan used his platform during Wednesday’s press conference to promote his goal of moving 1 million Syrian refugees into Raqqa and Deir ez-Zur, areas that extend well beyond the 20-mile safe zone Turkey established with its Syria incursion.

It was the second time Erdoğan publicly shared his policy goal after he first raised the issue at the United Nations in September. It is raising alarm bells among Turkey analysts that this is a pretext to expanding Turkey’s invasion into Syria.

“Ultimately what Turkey wants is the U.S. seal of approval,” Heras said. “Erdoğan wants to be able to say, President Trump is all that matters. President Trump shows I can do this, this shows why I am a strong leader, this shows why I am the most important person for Turkey.” 

Jordain Carney contributed to this report