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GOP senators take tough line with Erdogan on Syria and Russia in White House meeting

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was asked by a reporter, during a joint press conference with President Trump, about the letter Trump sent Erdogan urging him not to "be a fool" by invading parts of Syria.

Posted: Nov 14, 2019 5:10 AM
Updated: Nov 14, 2019 5:10 AM

A handful of Republican senators on Wednesday warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a candid and at times tense meeting that Turkey will face US sanctions unless it reverses course on the purchase of a Russian missile defense system, according to a senior administration official and two sources familiar with the matter.

President Donald Trump invited the five Republican senators -- all of whom have been vocal critics of Turkey's acquisition of the S-400 system -- to show Erdogan the strong opposition he faces, a senior administration official said. It was also in part an effort to show Erdogan that Trump's hands are tied on the sanctions issue.

"To the extent that Erdogan understands now the leverage and strength that the Senate has on this ... that was helpful," the administration official said.

In order to demonstrate that unified front, national security adviser Robert O'Brien held a call with the five senators before the meeting to get them on the same page about focusing on the S-400 issue, two administration officials and a Senate Republican source said.

Trump had warned Erdogan in a letter that week that sanctions were coming if Turkey deploys the S-400 system, but a source familiar with the meeting said the senators were more forthright on Wednesday.

The threat of sanctions was the focus of the Oval Office meeting, but the senators also delivered candid and sometimes heated criticisms to Erdogan about other issues.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been a vocal critic of Turkey's invasion of Syria, at one point engaged in a heated back-and-forth with Erdogan over the subject and the fate of the US's Kurdish allies, the senior administration official and source familiar with the meeting said.

Graham "was pretty aggressive on Syria," one source said.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida raised serious questions about Turkey's membership in NATO as the country grows cozier with Russia.

The other senators who attended were Jim Risch of Idaho, who's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, along with Ted Cruz of Texas and Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Trump invited these senators knowing they would be candid. He wanted a frank discussion and wanted the lawmakers to air their concerns, one source familiar with the conversations said, adding that the President believes it's important to maintain a positive relationship with Erdogan and isn't concerned that other US officials, like these lawmakers, feel differently.

The senior administration official said Trump had first raised the possibility of inviting the senators to meet Erdogan last week. A source familiar with the matter said it gave Trump an opportunity to avoid directly confronting Erdogan on the S-400 issue while still raising the concerns in an official capacity.

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