(CNSNews.com) – Defending President Trump’s decision to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following Sunday’s controversial referendum win, a White House spokeswoman said Tuesday “the president’s number one job is to keep Americans safe.”
“And if he needs to work with countries like Turkey and others to do that, I think that’s his priority and that’s what his focus is,” deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Wisconsin.
By a narrow margin, Turks voted to move from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system, granting sweeping new powers to an Islamist leader whose crackdown on dissent has drawn widespread criticism.
Sanders confirmed that Trump had congratulated Erdogan in a phone call Monday but when asked whether this amounted to acceptance of the referendum result, she said “no,” adding that the administration is encouraging an international observer mission to “take a close look at those election results.”
“They’re the gold standard when it comes to that,” she said in reference to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
“And we certainly want them to do everything that they would normally do in that process and make a determination and put out a full report.”
The ODIHR, in conjunction with two other institutions – the Council of Europe, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) – will put out a final report in several weeks’ time.
But it has already issued an interim report, judging that the referendum had taken place “on an unlevel playing field.”
They cited Erdogan’s crackdown under the state of emergency imposed after last July’s failed coup bid, media restrictions, and the “yes” camp’s dominance in media coverage.
A major issue of contention was the official electoral body’s last-minute decision to include in the count ballots that had not been stamped and sealed by officials. The “yes” side championed by Erdogan won by a margin of below three percentage points.
Both the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party have called for the vote to be annulled. The CHP said in a petition for annulment that the decision by the Supreme Board of Elections to include the unsealed ballots violated Turkish law.
In its interim report, the international observers said the Supreme Board of Elections had “issued instructions late in the day that significantly changed the ballot validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law.”
Erdogan’s response to the ODIHR’s criticisms was characteristically blunt, telling supporters outside the presidential palace the observer mission should “know its place” and could “talk to the hand.”
A brief White House readout of Monday’s phone call said Trump spoke to Erdogan “to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory.” The two also discussed the Syrian civil war, the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and “the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.”
The congratulatory call made waves, given the concerns expressed by the international observers, European Union allies – and the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Turkey’s creeping authoritarianism continues,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said on Tuesday. “All who value democracy, pluralism and Turkey’s key role in the region should be concerned about the elimination of important checks and balances in the Turkish system.”
Royce said he was troubled by the observers’ initial reports of irregularities and would review the full report when released.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner in a statement also noted the ODIHR’s concerns, including “observed irregularities on voting day and an uneven playing field during the difficult campaign period, which took place under a state of emergency.”
“We look 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,” he said.
“The United States continues to support Turkey’s democratic development, to which commitment to the rule of law and a diverse and free media remain essential.”
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) expressed concerns Tuesday about the reported irregularities in the vote, but when asked about it on PBS Newshour, declined to criticize Trump for the call.
“As far as President Trump calling President Erdogan, that’s a personal decision he made,” Cardin said. “I think it’s important to recognize this is an important ally.”