It’s hard to keep track of President Donald Trump’s betrayals of his country. First he solicited Vladimir Putin’s help in the 2016 election. Then he teamed up with Kim Jong-un to lie about North Korea’s arsenal. Then he covered up intelligence about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the murder of a U.S. resident. Then he pressed Israel to deny entry to members of Congress. Then he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democrats.
In the midst of all this madness—most recently, the administration’s stonewalling of a congressional inquiry into Trump’s coercion of Ukraine—the president has ordered American forces to get out of the way of a Turkish invasion in Syria. The troop withdrawal looks like a distraction, but it isn’t. Trump is colluding with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just as he has colluded with other authoritarians against the United States. The timeline of their relationship tells a story of disloyalty to America and its allies.
Turkey infiltrates the Trump campaign. On July 19, 2016, Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president. Six days later, a Turkish-Dutch businessman opened secret talks with Trump’s foreign policy adviser, Michael Flynn. The businessman’s goal, in collaboration with Turkish officials, was to build support in Washington for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish dissident living in Pennsylvania. On Aug. 9, Flynn signed a $600,000 contract to execute the lobbying operation. He was introduced to Turkish government ministers who supported it. For the rest of the presidential campaign, Flynn worked, in effect, as a Turkish agent.
Flynn spikes a plan to arm the Kurds. In December 2016, President Barack Obama decided to arm Kurdish forces—whom Erdogan regarded as enemies of Turkey—for an allied attack on the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. Since Trump was the president-elect, Obama’s aides consulted Trump’s designated national security adviser, Flynn, about the plan. Flynn told them not to proceed. At this point, Flynn was no longer working for his Turkish clients, but they had paid him more than $500,000. A few days later, Flynn met for breakfast with Turkey’s foreign minister.
Flynn is exposed—and Trump defends him. In February 2017, Flynn resigned for lying about secret talks with Russia. In March, he filed papers acknowledging his work as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkish interests. Instead of renouncing Flynn, Trump defended his talks with Russia, ignored his foreign-agent disclosure, and called him the victim of a “witch hunt.” When members of Congress condemned Flynn for hiding payments he had received from Turkey and Russia, Trump privately told Flynn to “stay strong.”
Trump congratulates Erdogan on rolling back democracy. On April 16, 2017, Erdogan won a referendum in Turkey to replace the country’s parliamentary system with broad executive powers. European leaders expressed concern, and election observers warned that Turkey was sinking deeper into authoritarianism. But Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him.
Trump accepts Turkish political violence in the United States. On May 16, 2017, Trump welcomed Erdogan to the White House. Afterward, as Erdogan watched from a car outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence, his bodyguards broke through an American police cordon and assaulted protesters. Video showed Erdogan conferring with his head of security just before the attack. Congress and the State Department denounced it, and a grand jury indicted 15 Turkish officers. But Trump said nothing. In private, he consoled Erdogan over the indictments, which were later dropped.
Trump presses the U.S. government to expel Gülen. On Oct. 17, 2018, Turkish officials asked the Trump administration to help them extract Gülen from the United States. The White House responded by ordering the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate grounds for extraditing him. The Justice Department told the White House that the grounds were insufficient and that no new evidence supported reopening the case. But that didn’t satisfy Trump. According to NBC News, “Trump administration officials then asked for other options to legally remove” Gülen.
Trump sides with Erdogan against American generals. On Dec. 14, 2018, Erdogan spoke to Trump by phone about U.S. troops in Syria. Erdogan wanted them out of the way so he could attack the Kurds. American officials warned Trump that some U.S. troops should stay, since ISIS was still a guerilla force. But Erdogan made a counteroffer: In place of American troops and the advice Trump was getting from American generals, Turkey would take over. During the call, Trump shocked his advisers by accepting the offer.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, dismayed by Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, submitted his resignation. So did Brett McGurk, the American envoy to the coalition against ISIS. Trump responded by publicly deriding both men. On Dec. 23, Trump announced that he was accelerating Mattis’ departure. The president reported that he had just spoken with Erdogan and that Erdogan would be taking over the job of exterminating ISIS.
Trump denounces U.S. officials for contradicting him. On Jan. 29, in testimony before the Senate, the heads of several U.S. intelligence agencies acknowledged—contrary to Trump’s assurances—that Russia, North Korea, and ISIS posed persistent threats. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, mentioned “issues with Turkey” (his written report warned of Turkey’s “growing authoritarianism” and its “regional ambitions”) and cautioned that ISIS still had “thousands of fighters” and was “continuing to plot attacks” against the United States. Trump responded by lashing out at “the Intelligence people” and ridiculing their testimony.
Trump sells out the Kurds again. After Trump’s December 2018 call with Erdogan, hawks in Congress and the administration persuaded Trump to keep some troops in Syria. But Turkish officials were confident that they could pry Trump away from his American advisers. And they did: On Sunday, in another phone call, Erdogan told Trump that he wanted to send Turkish forces into Syria. Without consulting allies or the Pentagon, Trump agreed to get out of the way. Within hours, on Trump’s instructions, American troops abandoned the area.
On Monday, Trump tweeted farewell to the Kurds. “The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so,” he wrote. “They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out … ” On Tuesday, Trump praised Turkey as a “big trading partner” and announced that Erdogan would soon be “coming to the U.S. as my guest.” Erdogan’s visit won’t provoke the same outrage as a visit by Putin or Kim. And the Kurds betrayed by Trump, like the protesters beaten by Erdogan’s thugs in Washington, won’t get the same attention as Trump’s collusion with Russia or Ukraine. But Turkey is part of the story of Trump’s treachery. Erdogan, like Putin, Kim, and Zelensky, has learned that in the United States, as in other authoritarian countries, only one man really matters.