President Donald Trump congratulated Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday on the country’s recent referendum granting Erdogan sweeping new powers, according to a White House readout of the call.
The call came after the State Department took a different, tougher tack that appeared to show qualms about the legitimacy of the vote. Trump’s call also seemed to contradict a White House spokesman who earlier in the day said the administration wanted to wait and see what election monitors learned about the vote.
The differing statements underscored the continuing difficulty facing the Trump administration in managing its foreign policy messaging. It also underscored the tricky nature of U.S. relations with Turkey, a critical NATO ally whose leader has shown autocratic tendencies.
"President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory and to discuss the United States’ action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on April 4th," the White House said in a readout statement Monday, adding that the president had thanked Erdogan for his support of Trump’s recent military action in Syria.
The White House said Trump and Erdogan also discussed counter-terrorism tactics and "the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends" of defeating the Islamic State. The Turkish government confirmed the conversation in a statement Monday.
Erdogan’s historic constitutional referendum claimed victory Sunday by a margin of 51.4 to 48.6 percent. It serves to drastically consolidate power in the executive branch, eliminating the existing parliamentary system for a presidential model that would have him serve as both head of state and of the government.
Erdogan’s expansion of powers has faced criticism both within Turkey and internationally, with opposition leaders and global watchdogs alike alleging voting irregularities in the process.
The White House’s congratulatory tone made no mention of alleged voting irregularities in the Turkish referendum — a distinct contrast with the State Department. Acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner pointed to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe detailing an "unlevel playing" in the Turkish campaign as cause potential issue in assessing the referendum.
"Democracies gain strength through respect for diverse points of view, especially on difficult issues," Toner said. "We thank the OSCE Referendum Observation Mission for its important work and note the concerns detailed in its preliminary assessment of the conduct of the vote and campaign. Those concerns include observed irregularities on voting day and an uneven playing field during the difficult campaign period, which took place under a state of emergency.
Toner added that the U.S. government was looking “to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens — regardless of their vote on April 16 — as guaranteed by the Turkish constitution and in accordance with Turkey’s international commitments, such as under the Helsinki Charter.”
Earlier in the day White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the White House wanted to see what international election monitors had to say about the vote.
“I think we’d rather not get ahead of that report and start to make decisions without knowing. There were observers there, as they routinely are, and I’d rather wait and see,” Spicer said.
It was not entirely clear why, despite Spicer’s statement, the White House later released word of Trump congratulating Erdogan.
Trump’s tone also contrasted with other world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was cooler, by comparison, in a joint statement with Germany’s foreign minister.
They noted the “tight referendum results show how deeply divided Turkish society is” and called on Erdogan to take responsibility for all citizens.
Nahal Toosi and Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this report.