Analyzing the letter to Erdoğan

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, right, shake hands during a meeting at the G-20 summit in June. Photo: Associated Press

By Gregory Koger

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, right, shake hands during a meeting at the G-20 summit in June. Photo: Associated Press

Analyzing the letter to Erdoğan

By Gregory Koger
President Donald Trump’s letter to the Turkish president has been looked at as undiplomatic and unprofessional.

Editor's note: Gregory Koger, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, examines the foundation of the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats into President Donald Trump. Koger, who specializes in legislative politics and political parties, is the author of Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate. 

On Wednesday the White House released a letter from President Donald Trump to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey. Trump sent the letter on Oct. 9, the same day Turkish forces began attacking U.S.-allied Kurds in Syrian territory. 

The letter did not have its intended effect. After reading Trump’s letter, Erdoğan reportedly “threw the letter into the [garbage] bin and launched the Syrian operation the same day.” 

Since its public release, this letter has attracted criticism that its rhetoric is unusual for diplomatic correspondence sent by the President of the United States. It begins with, “Let’s work out a good deal!” then proceeds to threaten economic sanctions, encourages Erdoğan to negotiate with the commander of Kurdish forces in Syria, and ends with an exhortation to not go down in history as “the devil,” and “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” 

For context, there are three main reasons this letter is unusual. 

Words Matter 

Generally speaking, Americans expect their presidents to speak well. Whether that means George W. Bush’s plain-spoken Texas values or Barack Obama’s professorial inspiration, presidential speech is supposed to be at least above average. And for good reason: the U.S. Constitution grants limited formal powers to the president, so the ability to inspire and persuade is central to the modern presidency. The letter to Erdoğan falls below that standard. 

In particular, the rhetoric of diplomacy is usually especially careful, nuanced, and careful. Professional diplomats write carefully when lives may literally hang on every word. As Abraham Newman, a Georgetown University professor writing in The Washington Post, warns, this letter—and Trump’s broader pattern of casual, ill-informed, and bombastic rhetoric—may severely harm American foreign policy: 

  • The long-term question is whether Trump’s letter will lead to the further undermining of U.S. power. On the one hand, other leaders may decide not to take his rhetoric seriously: He has a track record of making sweeping threats and changing his mind within hours or days. On the other, the lack of consistency may itself do damage to U.S. financial power. The U.S. Treasury and Justice departments have worked hard to build up a reputation for being willing to take action against states or businesses that step over their red lines. The willingness of Trump to erase red lines, reinscribe them with threatening rhetoric reminiscent of a Mafia boss and then erase them again may damage that reputation.

Process Matters 

While I have not seen any inside accounts of how the Erdoğan letter was written, it is fair to guess that Trump dictated this letter himself and sent it without showing it to professional diplomats—or at least no one who would candidly assess its message. If so, it is an example of a broader pattern in the Trump White House: a complete breakdown of the policy-making process.

Previous White House staff of both parties describe a careful, deliberate process for setting policy. Experts are consulted. Relevant agencies are asked to weigh in. In normal times, every presidential action—every word—is the product of deliberation and consensus-building. 

The Trump White House has demolished this model. From the beginning, Trump and White House staffers like Steven Bannon harbored a deep distrust of the “Deep State,” of policy expertise, and following established routine. Trump himself resists advisors who seek to restraining his tweeting, his impulsive policy decisions, and his willingness to break laws. No, really: a major reason why Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was eventually fired-by-tweet was that he resisted presidential requests that would violate U.S. laws. After two and a half years, most of the staff and executive officials willing to stand up to Trump have been fired or otherwise replaced, and the president is free to follow his impulses. 

The dismantling of the White House policy process is at the core of two current crises. For months, Trump and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney have circumvented the U.S. State Department to run a possibly-illegal foreign policy toward Ukraine. This Ukraine policy is now at the center of the U.S. House of Representative’s impeachment inquiry. The second crisis is the broader Syria crisis stemming from Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and to expose Kurdish allies to Turkish assault. Trump reportedly made this decision while on the phone with Erdoğan without consulting any professional staff or Congressional leaders. 

Reality Matters 

Why did the White House release the letter to Erdoğan? The unsettling answer is that Trump believes the letter makes him look good. He reportedly sent the letter to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy-R-CA, urging him to pass it out to members of Congress, believing it makes him look tough. Trump also passed it out to Congressional leaders. The letter became public on Wednesday after Trump mentioned it at a press conference and offered to share it with the media. Trump thinks this is a good letter, even though Erdoğan clearly ignored it. 

As Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein explains, this suggests a real blind spot for President Trump that harms his Presidency:

  • Every president has policy fiascoes at some point. Every president slumps in the polls. Every president makes hiring decisions that go wrong. But normal presidents, most of the time, recognize their errors — even if they don’t admit them publicly — and work hard to improve things. Trump, to be blunt, doesn’t.