Trump asks GOP Senators for 'flexibility' on Turkey sanctions

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By Carol E. Lee and Leigh Ann Caldwell and Courtney Kube  with NBC News Politics
Image: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and President Donald Trump, shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019.   -   Copyright  Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP

WASHINGTON — During a private meeting Tuesday at the White House, President Donald Trump asked Republican senators for "flexibility" in responding to Turkey's purchase of a Russian missile defense system and argued against retaliating at this time with congressionally mandated sanctions that many of the lawmakers want to swiftly implement, according to multiple senators who attended the meeting.

"He would like a little more room, as the executive, to work through these issues," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. said after the 90-minute meeting between 46 Republican senators and the president.

Trump invited the senators to the White House amid growing concerns among GOP lawmakers that he'll take a soft approach to Turkey's decision to purchase Russia's S-400 missile defense system. Under legislation that Congress passed, and Trump reluctantly signed into law, in 2017, the administration is supposed to sanction Turkey for purchasing Russian military equipment.

But Trump has held up the implementation of sanctions after coming under pressure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to four people familiar with a conversation between the two leaders during a meeting last month in Japan.

On Tuesday Trump tried to convince the GOP senators to give him space to cut a deal with Erdogan instead of adopting sanctions, lawmakers who attended the meeting said.

"I think he would like more flexibility," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of the president after the meeting.

Trump told the senators that he believes he can use his relationship with Erdogan to come to a resolution that would better rein in Turkey than any sanctions would, lawmakers who attended the meeting said. One senator described the president as "very confident in his persuasive abilities" and said he "feels constrained" by Congress.

Tuesday's meeting ended with no agreement between Republicans and the president on how to respond to Turkey. There are still "tensions within the family," one senator in attendance told NBC News.

Since meeting with Erdogan on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan last month, Trump has expressed reluctance to aides and lawmakers about signing off on sanctions against Turkey, administration officials said. During the meeting Erdogan made multiple threats of retaliation if the U.S. moved forward with sanctions, the four people familiar with the exchange said.

The steps Erdogan threatened to take, according to the sources, included withdrawing Turkey from Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization and kicking the U.S. out of Turkey's Incirlik Air Base, which has been critical to the American military operations in Syria.

Flattery also was part of Erdogan's approach, and he tried to appeal to Trump's image as a seasoned dealmaker, these people said. They said Erdogan told Trump he's a better businessman than his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, so the two of them should be able to come to an agreement to avoid sanctions. Trump has since publicly blamed Turkey's purchase of the S-400 system on the Obama administration.

The White House and National Security Council declined to comment on the president's position on sanctions, his meeting with Erdogan or Tuesday's meeting with Republican senators.

After meeting with Trump, Erdogan said publicly that the president had personally assured him the U.S. would not sanction Turkey. He also said the U.S. would still deliver F-35 fighter jets to Turkey as planned, though the Trump administration later announced it had canceled the sale because of Turkey's purchase of the S-400.

The White House has been debating for weeks if, when and how much to sanction Turkey in response to its purchase of the S-400 system, according to administration officials, which Ankara took possession of earlier this month.

"Trump is wavering," one person familiar with the discussions said. "That's why you haven't seen an immediate U.S. response to the first delivery" of the missile defense system.

Lawmakers in both parties have called for an aggressive response to Turkey's purchase of the S-400.

Trump told the GOP senators at Tuesday's meeting that under a deal he wants to cut with Erdogan, Turkey would not put the S-400 system to use and instead would purchase the U. S. Patriot missile defense system. Also, the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey that the Trump administration canceled would go through.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D said Trump asked the senators if Congress could work with his administration so he can negotiate with Erdogan.

"He's trying to find a way to get Turkey to not to stand up the S-400 system and so they can buy the F-35s," Hoeven said. "We talked about a number of different ideas to make that happen."

While Trump invited Republican senators to the White House to discuss the issue on Tuesday, Democratic senators were not invited and sent Trump a letter criticizing his decision to exclude them.

Under the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, the administration is required to adopt sanctions Turkey for purchasing military equipment from Russia. The legislation's overwhelming support in Congress forced Trump to sign it, though he described the law as "seriously flawed" because of constraints it puts on executive branch authority.

Under the law, the administration must chose to impose at least five sanctions options from a list of a dozen. Those options include prohibiting sanctioned individuals from acquiring loans or making banking transactions from U.S. financial institutions, denying visas for corporate officers at sanctioned entities, and banning assistance from the export-Import Bank to sanctioned individuals.

Administration officials said the president has gone back and forth on sanctions against Turkey in the weeks since his Erdogan meeting, and his aides have been unsure what decision he'll make or when. One official described Trump as "resistant" to adopting sanctions after his meeting with Erdogan, but said the president later agreed to sign off on some sanctions. Yet Trump has since wavered again, officials said, explaining the delay.

Officials had told NBC News they expected sanctions to be announced last week, but as last week came to a close they shifted to say they expect them this week. That seems unlikely if Trump is seeking to reach an agreement with Erdogan.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday that if the U.S. moves forward with sanctions, Turkey will retaliate. "This is not a threat or a bluff," he told Turkish television station TGRT Haber.

There is some concern in the Pentagon, according to administration officials, that Turkey could retaliate by taking action against Kurds in northeastern Syria, forces that have aided the U.S. in the fight against ISIS and that Erdogan considers a terrorism threat. Some State Department officials have also argued for a measured response to Turkey's S-400 purchase, officials said.

Trump has signaled ambivalence on the issue and sowed confusion about how or whether he has decided to move forward with sanctions. Asked last Thursday if the U.S. was going to adopt sanctions on Turkey, Trump said "no."

"We're not looking at that right now," he said.

Less than an hour later, Trump sought to clarify his response.

"We're looking at it," he said when asked again if he'd ruled out sanctions. "The previous administration made some very big mistakes with regard to Turkey, and it was too bad. So we're looking at it."

The president's initial answer on Thursday also differed from what he said on June 28 as he sat down to meet with Erdogan in Japan. Asked then whether the U.S. would impose sanctions against Turkey over the missile-defense purchase, Trump said: "We're looking at it."