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At Odds With His Administration, Trump Appears To Give Turkey A Pass


President Trump has a history of being at odds with his administration. The issue this time - NATO ally Turkey intends to buy both an advanced Russian air defense system, the S-400, and the U.S.'s newest stealth fighter, the F-35. The U.S. has warned Turkey for months it can't have both. Trump appears willing to give Turkey a pass. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When presidents sat down last weekend for a much anticipated meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Osaka, Japan, it looked like a love fest.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's my honor to be with a friend of mine, somebody I've become very close to in many respects. And he's doing a very good job - the president of Turkey.

WELNA: After that meeting, Trump called Erdogan a tough cookie, which he said was a really good thing. Erdogan, Trump added, was buying a lot of F-35 fighter jets and wanted them delivered and defended Turkey's buying Russia's S-400 air defense system.


TRUMP: And now they're saying he's using the S-400 system, which is incompatible with our system. And if you use the S-400 system, Russia and other people can gain access into the genius of the F-35. But honestly, I'm all for our country, but he got treated very unfairly.

WELNA: Trump called the situation a mess and said Erdogan was not at fault. At his own news conference after the meeting, the Turkish president declared that Russian S-400 missile system will be delivered to Turkey in the first half of July. He pointedly added that the U.S. imposing sanctions on Turkey was out of the question.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WELNA: Trump, Erdogan said, had been quite clear in his remarks. The Turkish president said he heard Trump say the sanctions would not happen. That's not what Christopher Skaluba has been hearing. Skaluba is a former director for NATO policy at the Pentagon.

CHRISTOPHER SKALUBA: Everything that I've heard from the Pentagon, from the State Department, from other agencies is that if they acquire the S-400, they're not going to get F-35s. That is clearly the message the Turks are being given.

WELNA: Indeed here's acting defense secretary Mark Esper just last week.


MARK ESPER: If Turkey procures the S-400, it will mean they will not receive the F-35. It's that simple.

WELNA: And here's an exchange in April between Maryland Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.


CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: If Turkey gets delivery of the S-400s, it will not get delivery of that F-35s. Is that correct?

MIKE POMPEO: I have communicated that to them both privately, and I will do so again publicly right here.

WELNA: Since then, the U.S. has suspended deliveries of all F-35-related materials to Turkey even though Turkey has paid for but not received four F-35 jets. It's excluded Turkey from key meetings related to the fighter jet, and it's told the 42 Turks who are in the U.S. training to fly the F-35 that they must leave the country by the end of this month. It's a very different message from what Trump conveyed in Japan to Erdogan, says Turkey Project Director Bulent Aliriza at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BULENT ALIRIZA: Everything that he said was music to Erdogan's ears, but whether he has the will or the willingness to actually intervene in the process remains to be seen.

WELNA: Congress meanwhile is preparing the big annual defense bill for Trump's signature that bars any F-35s for Turkey if it installs the Russian missile system. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.