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White House defends mixed messages from Trump administration over Turkey

 (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

The White House on Tuesday sought to defend President Trump's decision to make a congratulatory telephone call to his Turkish counterpart following a bitterly disputed vote in Turkey that international monitors said was likely fraudulent.

Trump's call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday contradicted more cautious and concerned voices from within his own young administration. Many fear Sunday's referendum in Turkey will erode that nation's attempts to build democracy by making the president all-powerful.

Erdogan's side in the constitutional referendum, which will greatly expand his powers and likely leave him in office for at least another decade, won narrowly, according to preliminary official results. But the vote was widely denounced by Turkish opposition figures and numerous international observers amid allegations of widespread fraud.

Moreover, human rights and pro-democracy organizations have attacked Erdogan's plans, saying the new regulations contained in the referendum will solidify his already-autocratic hold on the Turkish political system.

In the call, Trump congratulated Erdogan on his victory, the White House said, making no mention of any controversy. He went on to thank Erdogan for his help in the battle in Syria and the fight against Islamic State, the White House said.

Turkey, a NATO ally, performs a key role in both battles.

On Tuesday, pressed about the call, Trump's deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the referendum was really just a secondary topic of the conversation and that the emphasis was on continued cooperation in counter-terrorism.

"The president's No. 1 priority is protecting Americans, keeping Americans safe, and sometimes we're going to have to work with other countries and some of our NATO partners in order to do that," she said on Air Force One taking Trump to an appearance in Wisconsin.

Sanders denied there were contradictions between Trump's call and an earlier statement Monday by the State Department. She also contradicted his main spokesman, Sean Spicer.

Just hours before Trump's call to Erdogan, Spicer was asked about reaction to the Turkey vote. He said it would be necessary to wait for observers to finish a review of the disputed results, which he said could take 10 to 12 days.

"And so we'll wait and let them do their job," Spicer told reporters at the daily White House briefing on Monday. "I think we’d rather not get ahead of that report and start to make decisions without knowing."

He made no mention of Trump's call nor of the fact that Erdogan had already claimed victory.

Separately, the State Department issued a more muted and critical statement, also on Monday, calling on Erdogan to "protect the fundamental rights and freedoms" of all Turkish citizens and taking note of "irregularities" reported by international election monitors during and leading up to the vote.

"The United States continues to support Turkey’s democratic development, to which commitment to the rule of law and a diverse and free media remain essential," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. Erdogan has jailed thousands of journalists, teachers, civil servants, military officers and dissidents in the wake of a failed coup last summer.

Trump's friendlier message seemed to be part of his pattern to favor a nation's cooperation in the fight against terrorism over other concerns, such as human rights or possible electoral fraud. Similarly, Trump gave an effusively warm White House welcome earlier this month to Egypt's strongman, President Abdel Fattah Sisi.

Trump has made clear that human rights and "democracy building" are not priorities of his shoot-from-the-hip style of foreign policy.

The mixed messages on Turkey also reflect continued disarray within the administration, now approaching its 100-day mark. Trump deliberately rejects the expertise of his State Department, frequently declining diplomatic briefings before calls and meetings with world leaders.

On numerous occasions, he has made statements in direct contradiction to some of his senior aides, including Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. 

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