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Face-Off Between U.S. And Turkey Escalates


With a tweet this morning, President Trump intensified a fight with a longtime if contentious U.S. ally, Turkey. The president said the U.S. will double tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum, and then he punctuated his announcement with simply, quote, "our relations with Turkey are not good at this time." But there's more to this than tariffs. The dispute seems to route back to the case of a U.S. pastor. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now from the State Department to discuss all of this. Hey, Michele.


CHANG: So this feud seems to be getting pretty bitter now. Trump even took a moment to note today that the Turkish currency fell. What is driving this?

KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, it looks very personal at the moment between these two strong-willed leaders. As you said, Trump talked about the Turkish lira on a downward slide. And his tweet warning of higher tariffs is making that worse. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his part, says his country will withstand what he's calling an economic war. Now, I asked a Turkey expert, Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about all this. He wrote a book that's called "The New Sultan," which is a biography of Erdogan. And he's expecting the Turkish leader to really dig in his heels and blame the U.S. for Turkey's economic woes.

SONER CAGAPTAY: You have to understand how Erdogan functions. He is a prototype of populist leaders globally. He has demonized his opponents, but he's also built a loyal conservative base that loves him. This is a very loyal crowd, half of the country, that literally worships and adores Erdogan. And they also believe that Erdogan has a historic mission, as he suggests, to make Turkey great and Muslims proud again.

KELEMEN: Yeah, and Erdogan is already encouraging his supporters to sell their dollars and euros to prop up the faltering lira. So you're seeing him dig in already.

CHANG: And also in the middle of this dispute is the case of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson. Remind us who he is.

KELEMEN: That's right. He's a pastor who's lived in Turkey for more than two decades. And he was one of several Americans swept up in this massive crackdown - you know, tens of thousands of people arrested after a failed coup attempt against Erdogan two years ago. The White House rarely raises the other cases, but it does focus on Brunson. He's been an important case for Trump's base. And Trump seems to be taking all of this very personally. He reportedly thought he had a deal to get Pastor Brunson home. Brunson was released from prison, but he remains under house arrest.

CHANG: But the dispute between the two countries extends far beyond Brunson, right? I mean, how bad would you say relations are right now between Turkey and the U.S.?

KELEMEN: Pretty bad. I mean, there's also - the U.S. is angry, for instance, that Turkey, a NATO ally, is buying Russian missiles. Again, I talked to Soner Cagaptay about this. He thinks the relations are worse than they've been in decades. And he says it's important that they start improving it. Let's listen again to what he had to say.

CAGAPTAY: Whether or not you like the government of President Erdogan, Turkey is an important ally. And number one, it borders Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia across the Black Sea and ISIS-held territory in the Middle East. So whatever our U.S. policy is regarding these five entities and states - Russia, ISIS, Iran, Iraq, Syria - those policies are much easier, much less costly and much less cumbersome to implement with if Turkey is a U.S. ally.

KELEMEN: And his advice to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials is, don't escalate this further. In his words, they should provide a ladder so that the two sides can climb down.

CHANG: That's NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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