The Donald Trump administration’s heavy-handed approach with Turkey in its bid to secure the release of a detained US pastor has prompted Congress to recalibrate its approach to the wayward NATO ally.
While lawmakers in both parties have steadily ratcheted up the pressure on Ankara in recent months, the president’s brash decision to target Turkey’s economy for its detention of Andrew Brunson appears to have rattled some of them. Even Republicans who favor the president’s retaliatory tariffs are now floating the possibility of a free trade agreement with Ankara as a carrot to offset Trump’s big stick.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., told Al-Monitor this week that he supports the president’s announcement of 50% tariffs on Turkish steel and 20% on aluminum, despite his stated skepticism of an initial round of tariffs on Turkey and other US trade partners. Unprompted, he then went on to sing the praises of a trade deal, an idea that has been floating around at least since trade talks with the European Union were the order of the day back in 2013.
“I hope that what we’re passing on the Senate floor is a trade agreement with Turkey,” he said after hinting that Congress could tee up further retaliatory measures next year.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also called for a free trade deal and emphasized the need to continue strategic cooperation with Ankara in Syria and Iraq following a meeting with the Turkish ambassador to the United States last week. Graham has previously voiced his support for Trump’s Turkey tariffs.
“The goal for me is to have a free trade agreement with Turkey,” Graham told reporters earlier this week. “Their economy’s in the toilet. It’s hurting our economy. With all their faults, they’re a NATO ally and what I’m trying to do is focus on something positive.”
Tillis has worked across the aisle with other Erdogan critics in Congress, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on legislation intended to cut Turkey off from certain international lending streams until it releases detained US citizens and consular staff. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act last month.
Her misgivings about Erdogan aside, Shaheen voiced concerns that the tariffs are exacerbating a trade war.
“Our goal ought to be to lower tensions with Turkey, not to heighten them,” Shaheen told Al-Monitor. “In that respect, I would hope the State Department and the administration would try and do that.”
The US ran a $2.6 billion trade surplus with Turkey in 2016. That did not deter Trump from slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Turkey in March on national security grounds.
Trump doubled the Turkey tariffs this month using the same legal justification after targeted sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers failed to secure Brunson’s release. The White House, however, has said that the pastor’s release would only result in sanctions relief, not the removal of tariffs.
“The tariffs that are in place on steel would not be removed with the release of pastor Brunson,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Aug. 14. “The tariffs are specific to national security.”
The Turkish lira has already fallen 37% this year, and the escalating standoff with the United States has only accelerated the currency crisis.
“If the US secures Brunson’s release but worsens Turkey’s already dangerous economic crisis in the process, the damage to US interests from a destabilized Turkey could quickly outweigh the benefits,” Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s national security program, told Al-Monitor.
Turkish media reported last week that Finance Minister Berat Albayrak spoke with his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire about pushing back against US economic measures against Ankara. The two reportedly plan to meet in Paris next week.
Meanwhile, Qatar is providing Ankara with a $15 billion cash influx in an attempt to shore up the lira. US national security adviser John Bolton this week dismissed the Qatari investment as “utterly insufficient to have an impact on Turkey’s economy.” Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin then pointed to Bolton’s statement as “proof that the Trump administration is targeting a NATO ally as part of an economic war.”
Lawmakers have also raised concerns that the administration’s narrow focus on Brunson, a cause celebre among Trump’s conservative Christian base, risks leaving other American prisoners out in the cold while raising doubts about US motives. Turkey has also convicted and imprisoned NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual US-Turkish citizen, and detained several Turks locally employed as US consular staff, including Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) employee Metin Topuz.
While Sanders said Aug. 14 that Trump is frustrated by Turkey’s ongoing detention of “other US citizens and employees of diplomatic facilities,” the president and Vice President Mike Pence have exclusively referenced Brunson in their public remarks. And Bolton said this week that Turkey could end its crisis with the United States “instantly” by releasing Brunson.
“I admire and appreciate the president’s efforts to step up the pressure until we get to a resolution for pastor Brunson, but we also have to talk about a NASA scientist who’s almost three years into a seven-year term,” Tillis told Al-Monitor. “We have to talk about a DEA agent. We have to talk about Turkish nationals who worked with the State Department.”
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