(CNSNews.com) – President Trump during his press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday asked a Turkish woman whether she was a journalist or working “for Turkey,” after she asked a question that mirrored Erdogan’s talking points on Syrian Kurdish fighters and terrorism.
“Are you sure you are a reporter?” Trump asked after answering her lengthy question. “You don’t work for Turkey, with that question?”
One of several points of dispute between the U.S. and Turkey’s Islamist government relates to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – a key and effective ally of the U.S. in the campaign to defeat ISIS, but terrorists in Ankara’s eyes because of its affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group engaged in a long separatist insurgency against the Turkish state.
Erdogan’s provocative military offensive in northeast Syria last month was designed to push back the YPG from territory near the Turkish border.
The Turkish reporter, pro-Erdogan columnist Hilal Kaplan, was called upon by the Turkish president, after Trump joked that he should pick “a friendly person.”
She began by telling Trump that he has the burden of having to deal with President Obama’s “flawed foreign policy, and one of those flaws was aligning the U.S. with a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, the PKK, and its Syrian offshoot, YPG.”
Kaplan said Trump, while trying to undo the damage that policy caused to bilateral ties, had also “invited the ringleader of [the] YPG to the White House,” a man whom she alleged was responsible for deadly terrorist attacks in Turkey.
“So, after today’s meeting, do you still think of inviting him to the White House, which will be very offensive and hurtful for the Turkish public?” she asked.
The man she was referring to is Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leader Gen. Mazloum Abdi. (The YPG is a leading component of the U.S.-allied SDF.)
In a tweet on October 24, Trump indicated that he might meet with Abdi, thanking him for his “kind words and courage,” and adding, ““Please extend my warmest regards to the Kurdish people. I look forward to seeing you soon.”
In his reply to Kaplan, Trump said he had “had a very good talk” with Abdi recently, and added that the U.S. was “working very closely” both with him and with Erdogan.
Alluding to the differences over the status of the YPG, Trump said, “A lot of that is definition – what’s your definition of the various groups within the Kurds. You call the Kurds, and then you have various groups, and some like them and some don’t.”
While sidestepping the reporter’s specific question about whether he would meet with Abdi, Trump called the U.S. relationship with Erdogan and Turkey “outstanding.”
He ended his answer with comments about Turkey’s importance as a purchaser of U.S. military equipment, before asking Kaplan whether she was, in fact, a reporter.
‘This is something unacceptable’
The columnist then asked Erdogan a question, once again echoing his talking points on another key issue in dispute between the two countries – Ankara’s unsuccessful demands for the extradition of Fetullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding an abortive 2016 coup attempt.
Kaplan asked Erdogan to comment on the U.S. approach towards Gulen and his social and educational movement, which Turkey has dubbed the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO).
Erdogan said he was submitting documents during his visit to Washington in support of Turkey’s position, and expressed the hope the U.S. would comply with the extradition request.
“FETO is a terrorist organization and he [Gulen] is the ringleader of this terrorist organization,” he said.
Accusing the movement of trying to overthrow the state in a coup, he added, “And the ringleader is living on an area of 400 acres in the United States, running his network all around the globe. And this is something unacceptable.”
Gulen, who was a close ally of Erdogan before the two fell out and became rivals, denies any involvement in the coup plot. U.S. authorities have said Turkey has provided insufficient evidence in support of its claims against the cleric, who lives in a compound near Saylorsburg, Pa.
The failed coup attempt triggered a massive crackdown on dissident in Turkey, with tens of thousands arrested and purged for supposed links to Gulen. Among those caught up in the sweep was Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor held for two years and tried on terror and spying charges.
In August last year the U.S. sanctioned two Turkish government ministers over Brunson’s treatment. Two months later he was convicted of aiding terrorism, sentenced to time already served, released, and returned home.
Another American arrested in the anti-Gulen crackdown was Serkan Golge, a former NASA scientist arrested in 2016, and sentenced in February 2018 to 7.5 years’ imprisonment for membership of FETO. On appeal the conviction was amended and the sentence reduced to five years’ imprisonment.
Last May the State Department announced that he had been released. But he was barred from leaving Turkey. Trump on Wednesday, thanking Erdogan, announced that Golge would returning home “at some point in the not too distant future.”
Erdogan’s Turkey has a poor record of press freedom. In the 2019 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index Turkey is in 157th place, out of 180 countries.