- Junior officials met the U.S. vice president at the airport
- Turkish government-linked newspaper calls trip a waste of time
From the minute he stepped off the plane on Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Turkey seemed ill-fated.
Intended to smooth relations frayed by last month’s botched coup, Biden’s visit instead showcased acrimony with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey sent low-ranking officials -- including Ankara’s deputy mayor -- to greet Biden at the airport. And even before the vice president’s visit ended, the Daily Sabah, a pro-Erdogan newspaper, declared that "Biden wasted a trip, Turkey wasted time."
Biden -- the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Turkey since the coup -- was apologetic and conciliatory during his joint news conference with Erdogan. As the vice president spoke, the Turkish leader sat back in his chair, stone-faced.
Turkish animosity toward the U.S. ratcheted up after the failed coup on July 15, followed by a purge of thousands of soldiers, government officials and even teachers by Erdogan’s government. The Turkish government blames a self-exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, for inciting the coup and has demanded his extradition.
Biden repeatedly offered condolences for the coup, sounding a different note than his boss, President Barack Obama, who chastised Turkish officials in July for spreading rumors that the U.S. was responsible. Biden called the coup’s perpetrators "terrorists," reflecting Erdogan’s language, and said, "I wish I could have been here earlier."
"I want to make it unmistakably clear that the United States stands with our ally, Turkey,” Biden said. "Our support is absolute and it is unwavering."
After Biden’s remarks, Erdogan called the relationship with the U.S. "a model partnership" but then accused Gulen of operating a global terrorist network from Pennsylvania and demanded that the U.S. immediately detain the preacher, in part to prevent him from being interviewed by journalists. At that, Biden put his face in his hands. His frustration showed through as he tried to explain the U.S. justice system and the Constitution’s separation of powers to his Turkish audience.
"The Constitution and our laws require for someone to be extradited that a court of the United States has to conclude there’s probable cause to extradite," Biden said, explaining that the judicial branch is co-equal with Congress and the president. "How long it will take will depend on what evidence is presented. Thus far, until yesterday, there has been no evidence presented about the coup."
"God willing, there will be enough data and evidence to meet the criteria that you all believe exists," Biden said later. The White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, was asked during a news briefing happening at the same time if that remark meant the U.S. believes Gulen played a role in the coup.
Earnest was left to walk back Biden’s remark.
"Look, I think the point that the vice president was making is that this is not going to be a decision that is made by the executive branch," the spokesman said.
For Biden, who places a premium on personal diplomacy, moments of friction are an inevitable byproduct. Senior administration officials acknowledged ahead of the trip that anything short of Gulen’s return would be a disappointment to the Turks, and said that raw feelings were understandable in the aftermath of a coup attempt that shook the people and leadership of the country.
Biden scored a minor diplomatic win when Prime Minister Binali Yildirim appeared to bolster the vice president’s emphatic proclamation the U.S. had no prior knowledge or role in the coup attempt.
"The frank statements by the vice president are very important to us," Yildirim told reporters at a news conference.
Even with the cool reception for Biden, cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey continued unimpeded in the battle against Islamic State. On the same day that the vice president visited, Turkish forces mounted an offensive in Syria against Islamic State extremists, an operation that the U.S. helped plan and supported with airstrikes, reconnaissance and intelligence.