President Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won’t be doing any handshaking, back slapping or chummy antics before photographers anytime soon. The two leaders reportedly engaged in a handshake and very brief and presumably icy exchange behind the scenes at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
There was also some diplomatic confusion during President Trump’s address to the assembly, with Erdogan getting up and leaving the assembly hall during Trump’s speech. This caused some reporters present to interpret the move as a snub; however, the Turkish delegation later clarified in a statement that Erdogan was preparing for his own speech, which followed Trump’s in the official schedule.
According to Bloomberg the two shook hands out of site of reporters’ cameras, but did not broach key tensions dividing the two NATO allies, as they encountered each other between speeches.
As Bloomberg reports, “Cordial” would not describe the current state of U.S.-Turkey relations. Trump unexpectedly doubled tariffs on Turkey in August as a dispute over the fate of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor detained in Turkey, remained unresolved.
Pastor Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina was detained starting in 2016, and is undergoing trial in Turkey while under “house arrest” and is facing charges of espionage and aiding terrorist groups after being accused of cooperating with “Kurdish terrorists” and colluding with the Gulenist Islamic movement. He faces up to 35 years in prison if found guilty, and has now been in Turkish custody for two years.
Trump has made it a personal mission to free Brunson, issuing statements via Twitter condemning his detention. For example last July, Trump stated, while addressing the Turkish president directly: “A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him.” Congress has also held up transfer of F-35 fighters which were set to be delivered to Turkey, citing its horrible human rights record and the detention of Brunson.
Though Trump took shots at various countries during his Tuesday UN address, Turkey was nowhere mentioned in his remarks. Meanwhile Erdogan underscored Turkey’s growing alliance with Russia and his support for the Palestinian cause in a perhaps indirect shot at the recent White House decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem and cut funding for UN Palestinian refugee aid.
Meanwhile Turkey’s economy has suffered amidst the damaged ties with Washington, with the Turkish lira losing more than 45 percent of its value this year.