US President Donald Trump on Wednesday lauded his relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the leaders started a meeting to overcome mounting differences between the two NATO allies ranging from Syria policy to Turkey's purchase of a Russian missile defense system.
"We've been friends for a long time, almost from Day 1. We understand each others' country. We understand where we are coming from," Trump told Erdogan as they sat next to each other in the Oval Office.
"They're highly respected in their country and in the region," Trump said of Erdogan and his wife Emine.
Trump's warm welcome of the Turkish president comes amid anger in the US Congress about Ankara's October 9 offensive into Syria to drive out the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, Washington's main partner in the fight against Islamic State.
In front of the White House, protesters denounced Erdogan's visit and urged Trump to protect Kurds threatened by Turkey's incursion in Syria. One sign read, "America Stand with Your Kurdish Allies."
Turkey reached truce agreements with Russia and the United States last month that halted the incursion and forced Kurdish fighters to retreat from Turkey's southern border. “The ceasefire is holding very well,” Trump said. “We’ve been speaking to the Kurds and they seem to be very satisfied.”
Trump also said they will be discussing Ankara's purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system. Trump also added that the two sides would talk about a potential $100-billion trade deal.
"We're also talking about the trade deal ... Frankly, we're going to be expanding our trade relationship very significantly," Trump said.
Despite his warm welcome, the two NATO allies have been at loggerheads for months now and their ties hit a new crisis point last month over Syria, after Erdogan began a cross-border incursion against America's Kurdish allies and upended the US presence there. The United States has also been livid over Turkey's purchase of Russian missile defense systems.
Turkey shrugged off threats of US sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, in which Ankara was a manufacturer and buyer. But so far, the United States has not imposed any sanctions.
Turkey's S-400 purchase infuriated the US Congress. The House of Representatives last month passed a sanctions package to punish Turkey over its Syria operation while key members of the Senate, such as Trump ally Republican Lindsey Graham, have vowed to advance it if Ankara endangers Kurds.
The House also voted last month in favor of a non-binding resolution recognizing the killings of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago as a genocide, a symbolic but historic vote denounced by Turkey.
The House last month overwhelmingly passed a bill to sanction senior Turkish officials and its army for the military incursion into Syria.
"This is not the time or place to be extending hospitality and exchanging niceties with a dictator," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
In the Senate, two Democrats introduced legislation denouncing Turkey's targeting of journalists, political opponents, dissidents, minorities and others. They said the Turkish government had imprisoned more than 80,000 Turkish citizens, closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds and dismissed or suspended more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs.