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Republicans eye rebellion against Trump with Turkey sanctions

Republicans eye rebellion against Trump with Turkey sanctions

At one point during his extraordinary joint press conference with President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention to the U.S. Senate.

The chamber, he contended, would stop the “vicious cycle” started by the House, which had passed biting sanctions on his country. But senators have a clear response to Erdogan that’s at odds with Trump’s friendly rhetoric toward the strongman leader: Don’t count on it.

From Trump critics to stalwart allies of the president, many Republicans said Thursday that Erdogan’s visit to Washington had not changed any hearts or minds about Turkey, even after Trump lavished Erdogan with praise and he met privately with five Senate critics. At that meeting, Erdogan showed senators an anti-Kurd propaganda video, which seemed to backfire with the attendees.

Republicans remain deeply frustrated with Trump’s withdrawal from Northern Syria and the Turkish incursion that followed. So even as Republicans largely stick with Trump amid the impeachment threat, the party is looking for a release valve.

Many in the GOP are now pressing to not only enforce existing sanctions on Turkey, but to pile on new ones as soon as they can — which would be a rebuke not just of Erdogan but of Trump and his policies.

“It was certainly not a good time, at least, for Mr. Erdogan to be at the White House,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent Trump critic. Romney advocated “a series of actions sanctioning Turkey for going against the interests of our country and our ally, the Kurds.”

“Erdogan’s been consistently bad news for the people of Turkey and NATO. So I’m concerned about it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close Trump ally. “I think [sanctions] are likely.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has warned against sanctioning Turkey at the moment but told reporters on Thursday that the matter is still “under discussion” among senators.

McConnell has already gone against Trump once when it comes to sanctions. He helped pass a Russian sanctions bill in 2017 with a whopping 98-2 vote in the Senate, numbers so large the White House was forced to swallow it.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) is advising against sanctions for now, hoping the U.S. can strike a deal with Turkey over the country’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, which should trigger economic penalties from the United States. But he also said his committee will ready a bill in the interim, a move that will ultimately leave any decision up to McConnell.

“Probably it’s best we don’t pass a sanctions bill at this moment,” Risch said, urging diplomacy between Erdogan and Trump.

But given the appetite in the Senate to push back against Turkey’s attack on U.S. allies, it may be difficult to bottle up sanctions, particularly since the House overwhelmingly passed a bill targeting Turkey’s economy. Senators hit pause as the Trump administration raced to negotiate a temporary peace deal after the U.S. withdrawal, but they are itching to condemn Turkey’s president.

“It’s appropriate to put pressure on them to do the right thing, not just with regard to the Kurds, with regard to Syria generally,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “The Russian anti-aircraft system that they’re on board with makes it very hard for us to treat them as a normal NATO ally.”

Trump said he expects the ceasefire between the Kurds and Turkey to persist, but the trust does not extend to Trump’s own party.

“Erdogan’s probably going to move against Kobani, which is a traditional majority-Kurdish city,” predicted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “The last US troops in that area finally left, it took them two weeks to break down and move. And I think he’s going to view that as a chance to come in and grab that city. … That’s going to probably scramble all of this stuff again.”

Risch is trying to see if Trump and Erdogan can come to an agreement on Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles, which should trigger sanctions against Turkey and prevent the country from buying U.S. aircraft. Republicans and the White House have discussed a possible end-run to allow Turkey to skirt sanctions by making sure the missiles don’t interact with U.S. equipment.

But many Republicans think there should be no such flexibility and that the law clearly shows Turkey must be punished.

“That’s a non-negotiable. They bought Russian equipment, they’re getting… sanctions,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who also supports additional punishment in Senate legislation. “They’re going to buy the equipment and not turn it on? That’s absurd. I’ve heard [a deal] is possible. But I vehemently disagree.”

Democrats are skeptical, however, that Republicans will follow through with their tough talk. The Senate has yet to even pass a nonbinding resolution condemning Turkey, and Republicans blocked a House-passed bill recognizing the Armenian genocide this week.

“I’m willing to be surprised, but past is the predicate in this place. And in the past, Chairman Risch has not wanted to move anything that didn’t have the White House’s blessing,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “You’ve got a diversity of opinion, a White House that doesn’t really want it. That sounds to me like a prescription for a whole bunch of inaction.”

And several Republicans have struck a somewhat softer tone on Trump’s Turkey policy in recent days, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). He previously introduced a sanctions bill with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that would hamstring Turkey’s economy and Erdogan personally.

“If you put that bill up for a vote today, you’d get a veto-proof majority,” Van Hollen said. “The issue here is Mitch McConnell. He continues to be a shield for all of Trump’s worst impulses.”

Though Graham declined to criticize Trump for not taking on Erdogan directly, he also seemed inclined to move against Turkey in the coming days.

"It was a very smart idea to let Turkey, Erdogan and others know where the Congress is at. It was respectful,” Graham said of the Wednesday meeting at the White House. “I was the closest thing that Turkey had to a friend until they invaded [Syria]… If there’s not corrective action and there’s a vote on the House sanctions, it would get 95 votes."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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