Just after Donald Trump grew disenchanted with Vladimir Putin, the U.S. president appeared to strike up a new fling with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Trump’s friendship with Erdogan has been budding for some time, dating back to at least last summer. But his reaction to a controversial, narrowly passed referendum in Turkey, which granted Erdogan sweeping new powers, nevertheless provoked surprise, at least to the extent that Trump’s foreign-policy moves can still shock. With international monitors citing voting irregularities, and with the opposition vowing to contest the results, Trump called his Turkish counterpart to offer congratulations. Monday evening, the White House issued a readout of that conversation:
President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory and to discuss the United States’ action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on April 4th. President Trump thanked President Erdogan for supporting this action by the United States, and the leaders agreed on the importance of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable. President Trump and President Erdogan also discussed the counter-ISIS campaign and the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.
Though cloaked in the drab language of official communications, Trump’s statement is remarkable for its apparent endorsement of a referendum that makes Turkey manifestly less liberal; the speed with which it was offered; the way it differs from the stated views of key American allies and even the State Department; and the lack of any expression of concern about the process.
First, there is the substance of the referendum, which pushes Turkey down the path from being a flawed but genuine democracy toward authoritarianism. “Sunday’s vote was a triumph for an illiberal form of democracy in which charismatic leaders, through democratic procedures like elections and referendums, are empowered to carry out the will of the majority of their people, largely free of democratic restraints,” my colleague Uri Friedman wrote.