Trump has embraced autocratic leaders

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump congratulated Turkey’s president for sweeping up more power. Trump hailed Egypt’s strongman as a “fantastic guy.” When China’s president visited the United States, Trump cited a burgeoning friendship and made no public mention of Beijing’s dismal human rights record.

Since taking office, Trump has displayed a striking willingness to embrace autocrats as potential partners in his “America First” agenda, even if it means ignoring their heavy-handed tactics and repression at home. It’s a posture that Trump also took toward Russian President Vladimir Putin until a dispute over Syria led Trump last week to declare U.S.-Russian ties at an “all-time low.”

Trump is hardly the first U.S. president willing to look the other way in dealings with governments that flout democratic values. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have cooperated closely with Saudi Arabia and China. President Barack Obama opened new diplomatic channels with Iran and Cuba, despite concerns about their repressive rulers.

But rarely are U.S. presidents as warm and unabashed about their relationships with autocrats.

Trump’s comfort level seems to stem in part from his background in business, where the details of a deal mattered more than the negotiating partner and flattery can get results.

When they were forced to deal with imperfect allies, Trump’s predecessors, including Obama and President George W. Bush, made a point of using the moment to promote American ideals. They often followed meetings with statements about human rights or gathered separately with advocates or opposition leaders.

On Monday, as international monitors and European allies voiced concerns about what they said was a slanted political playing field in Turkey’s referendum, the White House said Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on a victory that grants Erdogan more power.

The message was at odds with Trump’s own State Department, which expressed unease about a referendum that allows Erdogan to fulfill his long-held ambition for a presidency with executive powers.

Erdogan’s government has imprisoned scores of Turkish journalists. Since a failed coup last year, Turkey has arrested thousands of others accused of possible involvement.

“The president’s number one job is to keep Americans safe,” Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. “And if he needs to work with countries like Turkey and others to do that, that’s his priority and what his focus is.”

The White House’s readout of the Trump-Erdogan call focused its concerns on the Islamic State group and Syria’s civil war, which the U.S. and Turkey are coordinating efforts on. Turkey is a U.S. key ally against IS, even if Turkey’s poorly controlled border has been a contributing factor in the group’s expansion across Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Wednesday that Erdogan and Trump are planning to meet before next month’s NATO summit in Brussels. The White House confirmed that it’s in discussions with the Turkish government about arranging a meeting between the leaders.

Rachel Rizzo, a NATO and Europe expert at the Center for a New American Security, said the Trump administration sees its Turkey relationship “purely as a national security issue in terms of needing their help fighting ISIS and with the migration crisis in Europe.”

“It seems they’re willing to look past human rights abuses,” she said.

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