One of the greatest responsibilities of an American president is to encourage the development of democracy and the protection of basic liberties in countries with which the United States is allied. Presidents do not always live up to this responsibility, but few have failed so miserably as did Donald Trump with his response to a referendum result that leaders around the world recognize as a threat to Turkish democracy.
Remarkably, Trump undermined the US Department of State’s efforts to encourage respect for democracy and human rights in the aftermath of the controversial referendum vote that dramatically extended the powers of strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Noting complaints about how the referendum was conducted, and concerns about threats to civil liberties in Turkey, State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner announced: “We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens.”
It was important to send a savvy signal following the close vote. Erdogan’s penchant for jailing journalists and dissenters, for purging the judiciary and the civil service of those who question his authoritarian reach, and for abusing the powers of government to achieve his political ends all argued for caution and concern on the part of US officials. After it was announced that Erdogan’s forces had prevailed by a narrow 51-49 margin, Toner carefully explained that “commitment to the rule of law and a diverse and free media remain essential” to the development of Turkish democracy.
Unfortunately, what the rest of the world in general, and Erdogan in particular, heard was an entirely different message from the United States. The official announcement from the White House began: “President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory…”
The White House statement neglected mounting concerns about human rights abuses.