All eyes in America are on Capitol Hill these days, as the US House of Representatives considers impeaching the President of the United States.
When public hearings opened on Wednesday, November 13th, TVs, radios and computer screens across the country were full of historic images of long-time American diplomats being questioned by members of the legislature. The bottom line: did President Trump try to use American foreign policy for his own personal political gain?
His spokeswoman told reporters that the president was too busy with meetings to watch the first day of testimony — though later, Mr. Trump bad-mouthed the performance of the lawyer who led the questioning for the Democrats, an indication that he had managed to get a peek at the proceedings after all.
And what were those meetings the White House Press Secretary referred to?
This just happened to be the day the President of Turkey came to town.
What a backdrop for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make a return visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!
This was an important set of meetings… the first since Donald Trump announced he was pulling American forces out of a stretch of land along Syria’s border with Turkey — in effect, betraying the Syrian Kurds who had served alongside U.S. troops and clearing the way for Turkish forces to invade.
Erdogan’s White House visit should have gotten a lot of attention. And of course, those concerned with events in the region kept close watch.
But for average Americans, the Congressional hearings were — as we say in the US — sucking all the energy out of the room.
That may have been just what President Trump wanted. His initial decision to withdraw from Syria had proven highly controversial — especially among some members of the Republican party in Congress that he counts among his closest supporters in Washington.
By meeting with Erdogan on a day when attention was focused elsewhere, he could contain their anger. And maybe, just maybe, he thought the image of himself conducting business with a foreign leader — any foreign leader — would at least partially offset the live television feeds from the packed Congressional hearing room.
From his first public appearance with the Turkish leader — a brief session with reporters as they posed for pictures in the Oval Office — Donald Trump was casting his decision to pull troops out of Syria in a way that would appeal to his political base.
“It’s time for us not to be worried about other people’s borders,” Trump said, adding “I want to worry about our borders.”
He also mentioned the outlook for a big expansion of trade with Turkey. Trump didn’t go into details in public, but news reports say he sent a letter to Erdogan days prior to the White House meeting offering a billion dollar trade deal, and administrative action to blunt any sanctions imposed by Congress. In exchange, the U.S. president suggested Turkey would adhere to a ceasefire agreement, and support efforts to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State terrorists.
The idea that Trump would seek to circumvent sanctions got immediate pushback from members of Congress from both parties who want to hold Turkey accountable for its assault into Syria.
They had urged the White House to cancel the visit by the Turkish leader. But Trump welcomed his guest warmly, saying “It is a great honor to meet with President Erdogan.”
The two men have their differences to be sure — most notably over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system. But Trump has often referred to Erdogan as “a friend” and “a tough guy who deserves respect.”
“I’m a big fan of the president,” Trump said at a joint news conference at the conclusion of their talks. He then added that the US-brokered ceasefire in northern Syria was “complicated” but “moving forward at a very rapid clip.”
In his opening statement, Trump also noted progress on the Russian arms sale dispute and recognized members of the Senate that he had invited to a close-door meeting with Erdogan and had stayed for the session with reporters.
But when the questions began — the focus immediately shifted over to impeachment.
Trump ignored journalists from all the major news outlets — both print and broadcast — and immediately called on a reporter from a new conservative cable outlet seen by many as a mouthpiece for his administration.
“This is a sham and shouldn’t be allowed,” he said about the impeachment process. “It was a situation that was caused by people that shouldn’t have allowed it to happen.”
President Trump used the opportunity to go after Democrats in Congress, and praise his administration’s efforts to destroy the Islamic State. He said little about the Syrian-Kurd troops, but was lavish in his praise for Turkish forces.
It was Erdogan who had the last word. “We have no problems with the Kurds, we have problems with terrorists,” he said.
At a city square across the street from the White House, a group of people gathered who held a sharply different view.
Most said they came to protest the Turkish invasion of northern Syria and the American withdrawal that preceded it.
Among the demonstrators was Seyid Riza Dersimi. Two years ago, during the Turkish president’s last visit to Washington, he was beaten by Erdogan’s security guards while protesting near the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
This time, he returned to address the crowd wearing a white construction helmet.
“Of course I am going to demonstrate,” he said. “But this time I am going to protect myself.”
It’s not known if Erdogan even noticed the rally across the White House gate or Dersimi’s distinctive headgear.
But then again, most Americans didn’t notice either.
They were wondering about impeachment.