President Trump congratulated Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a phone call on Monday following a vote this weekend expanding the leader’s powers.
“President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory and to discuss the United States’ action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on April 4th,” the White House said in a statement Monday evening.
Trump’s kudos to Erdogan would appear to undermine the White House’s stance earlier in the day that commentary on the disputed vote would be withheld until international election watchers issued a final report on the referendum.
“There is an international commission that is reviewing this and issues a report in 10 to 12 days. We will wait and let them do their jobs,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier when asked for the administration’s response to the vote.
Turkey’s opposition party leaders are protesting the vote outcome, citing widespread voting irregularities and an intimidation campaign led by Erdogan’s allies.
Groups like the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), an election monitoring organization, said Monday that Erdogan’s regime created an “unlevel playing field” ahead of the vote by demonizing opponents to the referendum.
The U.S. State Department cited OSCE’s preliminary findings in a statement that stopped far short of endorsing Sunday’s referendum, which passed with just over 51 percent of the vote.
Critics of the referendum fear it pushes Erodgan one step closer to dictator status. The Islamist leader now has the power to dissolve Turkey’s parliament and has unilateral control over the NATO nation’s judiciary. The referendum will also allow him to stay in office until 2029.
Erdogan has steadily tightened his group on Turkey’s judiciary, police forces, and bureaucracy. He has purged tens of thousands of Turks from their jobs, based largely on allegations that they are supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in self-exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan has accused Gulen, a former ally, of orchestrating a failed coup attempt in July.
Erdogan has said that the referendum would help protect Turkey from future coup attempts as well as strengthen its economy.
This article has been updated with additional information from the White House.