From Vladimir Putin to Saddam Hussein, President Donald Trump has a long history of regularly and openly expressing admiration for a rogues’ gallery of foreign dictators and authoritarians.
Trump’s soft spot for strongmen was on display again Monday, when he phoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on winning a referendum designed to dismantle the country’s democratic infrastructure. In fairness, Erdogan pushed back on Tuesday, conceding in a CNN exclusive interview that his death – “I am a mortal, I could die at any time” – would end his rule.
The White House readout of the call made no mention of the ongoing crackdown in Turkey, where Erdogan has targeted opposition figures, journalists and other elements of civil society in the aftermath of a failed coup last year. A senior Trump administration official told CNN the call skirted the controversy surrounding the referendum and, apart from a “simple congrats,” mostly focused on Syria.
Some vocal segments of the domestic political establishment and anti-Trump pundits responded to news of the conversation with shock and dismay. But if anyone is surprised, well, then they obviously haven’t been paying much attention the past two years – or weeks, for that matter.
Fourteen days earlier, Trump celebrated Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, another Middle Eastern autocrat, during a White House meeting in which he promised a “very long and strong relationship.” He then tweeted a scrapbook’s worth of photos documenting the visit.
For Trump, the recipe is simple. If his counterparts are committed to fighting ISIS and complimentary of the President personally, then the conversation all but stops there. (Note: This is not uncommon in the annals of American diplomacy. Trump’s predecessors regularly backed assorted autocrats and dictators, though rarely with such gusto.)
Again, this shouldn’t come as breaking news. Hillary Clinton discussed it at some length during the 2016 campaign.