Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan picked quite the time to visit the White House. His highly anticipated meeting with President Trump comes just one day after the Washington Post reported that Trump had discussed classified information provided by a U.S. ally during a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister last week—a story Trump more or less confirmed on Twitter on Tuesday morning.
The revelation just further underlines what’s been obvious for some time: Trump is far from the cutthroat negotiator he promised to be on the campaign trail, he goes into these meeting with a startling lack of preparation, and his vanity makes him exceptionally easy to manipulate.
Nobody has played this game better than Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met Trump in person for the first time at Mar-a-Lago in April. Since that meeting, Trump has mentioned in nearly every interview how great he got along with Xi and what a wonderful man he is. In return for some pledges to put pressure on North Korea—which have apparently not deterred that country’s missile program—and a deal on beef imports that allowed Trump to claim a Twitter victory lap but did little to address the overall trade imbalance between the two countries, Trump has more or less abandoned the tough anti-Chinese trade rhetoric that defined his campaign. He’s even letting Beijing have its way in the South China Sea. Trump has also more or less adopted a Chinese-centric view of the Korean conflict, shocking South Koreans by saying that Xi had told him the entire peninsula used to be “part of China.”
Few leaders have as much to gain from a good relationship with Trump as Erdogan, who already has a friendly dynamic with the president and comes to Washington with a lengthy wish list. On top of his agenda will be convincing Trump to abandon a plan to arm the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG in the fight against ISIS. (Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization linked to the Turkey-based PKK, and has been launching airstrikes against them.) Erdogan would also like the U.S. to extradite the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, currently living in Pennsylvania, whom his government blames for last year’s attempted coup. Trump doesn’t actually have the power to do that—Gulen can’t be extradited without a court order—but the administration could get the ball rolling on that process or at least put out signals that it buys the Turkish government’s case against Gulen, which the previous administration viewed with skepticism.
As I discussed in an article Monday, Erdogan may have a card to play with Trump in the form of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor jailed on dubious charges as part of Turkey’s post-coup crackdown. Trump has touted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s decision to release an imprisoned U.S. aid worker after Trump asked him to as evidence of their productive partnership. I’m sure Trump would like nothing more than to be able to say he got a similar concession out of Erdogan, though it’s hard to imagine the negotiation will be on Trump’s terms. The lesson Erdogan and other leaders are no doubt taking from Monday’s story, as well as the meetings that proceeded it, is that once you get in a room with Donald Trump, anything can happen.