Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in Ankara, Turkey, on November 16, 2016. (Photo: Kayhan Ozer, Presidential Press Service, Pool photo via AP)

Trump to Erdogan: Congrats On Your Dictatorship!

The president’s call to Turkey’s increasingly autocratic leader sends an awful message of disregard for democracy.

John Nichols

 by The Nation

One of the greatest responsibilities of an American president is to encourage the development of democracy and the protection of basic liberties in countries with which the United States is allied. Presidents do not always live up to this responsibility, but few have failed so miserably as did Donald Trump with his response to a referendum result that leaders around the world recognize as a threat to Turkish democracy.

Remarkably, Trump undermined the US Department of State’s efforts to encourage respect for democracy and human rights in the aftermath of the controversial referendum vote that dramatically extended the powers of strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Noting complaints about how the referendum was conducted, and concerns about threats to civil liberties in Turkey, State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner announced: “We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens.”

It was important to send a savvy signal following the close vote. Erdogan’s penchant for jailing journalists and dissenters, for purging the judiciary and the civil service of those who question his authoritarian reach, and for abusing the powers of government to achieve his political ends all argued for caution and concern on the part of US officials. After it was announced that Erdogan’s forces had prevailed by a narrow 51-49 margin, Toner carefully explained that “commitment to the rule of law and a diverse and free media remain essential” to the development of Turkish democracy.

Unfortunately, what the rest of the world in general, and Erdogan in particular, heard was an entirely different message from the United States. The official announcement from the White House began: “President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory…”

The White House statement neglected mounting concerns about human rights abuses.

“The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process.”—Cezar Florin Preda

The White House statement neglected mounting concerns about threats to freedom of the press.

The White House statement neglected mounting concerns about the perilous state of Turkish democracy.

Aides to Trump — who developed a “Trump Towers” project in Istanbul before his assumption of the presidency — portrayed the conversation as a normal interchange between two leaders. Actually, it was an extremely abnormal interchange. The decay of democracy in Turkey has stirred an international outcry and led responsible leaders to challenge Erdogan’s authoritarian lurch. German German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, for instance, warned: “The tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is, and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally.”

Trump put himself on the wrong side of the discussion at a point when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the US is a member, reported: “The 16 April constitutional referendum in Turkey was contested on an unlevel playing field, and the two sides in the campaign did not have equal opportunities, the international observers concluded in a statement released today. While the technical aspects of the process were well administered, voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and limitations on fundamental freedoms had a negative effect…”

Cezar Florin Preda, the head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, expressed regret about “the absence of civil society observers in polling stations,” and said: “In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards. The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process.”

Tana de Zulueta, the head of an OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observation team said: “The referendum took place in a political environment in which fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed under the state of emergency, and the two sides did not have equal opportunities to make their case to the voters. Our monitoring showed the ‘Yes’ campaign dominated the media coverage and this, along with restrictions on the media, the arrests of journalists and the closure of media outlets, reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views.”

Donald Trump, who calls America’s free press the “enemy of the people,” and who has failed at too many turns at voting rights and civil liberties in the United States, sends an awful, awful message when he congratulates authoritarians in other lands. It is signal that raises concerns about his understanding of, and respect for, democracy itself.


© 2017 The Nation

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

In Landslide 1,108-to-387 Vote, Maine Nurses Reject Effort to Decertify Their Union

"They thought because we were a new union, they could manipulate Maine Med nurses and overturn our 2021 election," said one nurse. "But we just showed them the door."

Jake Johnson ·


Dems Threaten to Subpoena FTI Consulting Over 'Blanket Refusal' to Provide Info on Fossil Fuel Work

"FTI's refusal to cooperate with this congressional inquiry shows that they have something to hide, which will reveal the dangerous ways agencies like theirs have promoted fossil fuel greenwash and misinformation," said the Clean Creatives campaign's leader.

Jessica Corbett ·


Bad Day for DeSantis as 'Stop WOKE Act' Hit With Injunction, Lawsuit

"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," a federal judge wrote in blocking part of the controversial law. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."

Brett Wilkins ·


US Judge Says Mar-a-Lago Affidavit 'Can Be Unsealed' With Redactions

"This is going to be a considered, careful process, where everybody's rights, the government's and the media's, will be protected," declared U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart.

Jessica Corbett ·


Federal Judge Orders Starbucks to Rehire Fired Union Organizers in Memphis

"It was a ruling in favor of what's right," said one member of the Memphis Seven. "We knew from day one that we were going to win this, it just took time."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo