Why Trump must envy Erdoğan’s powers

In a recent column on the jailing of U.S. consulate employee Metin Topuz by the Turkish authorities, Yavuz Baydar commented that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump are both populists - “one an autocrat and the other a wanna-be”. 

This raises the question: What has kept Trump from realising his ambitions for autocratic rule that Erdoğan has largely fulfilled?

There are many features to a robust, pluralist democracy. A free media, respect for human rights, an active civil society not beholden to the government, legislative autonomy, and a truly independent judiciary that can and will hold government officials accountable when they transgress the law.

The case of Metin Topuz illustrates the impotence and near irrelevance of the Turkish judiciary once Erdoğan has settled on a course of action.

In contrast, the U.S. judiciary exercises real constraints over the U.S. president, even one given to as much authoritarian rhetoric and bombast as Trump. The current U.S. president arguably sees himself as having plenary executive authority, and there are numerous quotations from him claiming more executive power than he actually possesses. 

Trump’s oft-noted admiration for various strongmen - Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, as well as Erdoğan - is evidence of his desire to impose his will. That said, he also likes to negotiate and sees himself as a great deal-maker, an arguable point - convinced he can get by deal-making what he cannot get by bullying. 

As Baydar and this author have stated at different times, Trump’s concern for the non-American employees of the U.S. mission to Turkey such as Metin Topuz falls well short of his concerns for a U.S. citizen such as the jailed Pastor Andrew Brunson.

The case of jailed NASA scientist Serkan Gölge falls somewhere in between. Gölge is a dual U.S-Turkish national - certainly suspect in the mind of America First advocates who advise and support Trump, which may have impinged on U.S. efforts to secure his release. 

Though finally back in the U.S. after spending four years in Turkish jail on terrorism charges, Gölge’s case underlines the impotence of the Turkish courts, for the decision to release him was clearly a presidential one.

Unlike his Turkish counterpart, Trump must adhere to the law or face a rebuke from the federal courts. Early in 2017, Trump’s White House was forced to make three attempts to formulate a travel ban on six mainly Muslim countries that the courts would accept as complying with U.S. immigration law.

Most recently, U.S. Supreme Court decided that his administration’s attempt to undo the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) order of his predecessor President Barack Obama did not have adequate justification pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act.

In the intervening three and one-half years, the courts have thwarted several executive initiatives, and Trump has complied, albeit grudgingly and often with acerbic complaints via Twitter. 

Can one imagine Erdoğan accepting a decision of a Turkish judiciary that thwarted his policies or plans? In effect, Erdoğan can ignore or override adverse court decisions - Trump cannot.

Another illustrative case is the ongoing efforts of Erdoğan to have the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen extradited to Turkey to face charges of orchestrating the July 2016 failed coup attempt.

Recent reporting suggests that Trump promised his Turkish counterpart to have the FBI investigate Gülen's business interests. And that is about as far as Trump can go. 

As noted by this author in reference to charges against Ekim Alptekin, the fugitive Turkish businessman accused of acting as unregistered foreign agent in the trials of Trump’s former security adviser Michael Flynn, the Turkish government’s request for Gülen’s extradition “was meeting resistance at the U.S. Departure of Justice”.

Without a positive recommendation for extradition from the state and justice departments, the U.S. president cannot deport someone - legal procedures must be adhered to and if not, the courts would intervene. 

As a legal permanent resident, Gülen enjoys legal rights almost equal to a U.S. citizen. But 'almost' is not 'the same', and Gülen faces the prospect of deportation if - a very large if - he were convicted of certain crimes.

Erdoğan’s advisors surely know this, and finding the extradition path blocked, now seek to bring Gülen to Turkey by another way. Trump’s offer of an FBI investigation responds to these aspirations, but from investigation to deportation is a long route, and the authorities along the way are independent of Trump’s authority.

Trump cannot promise more than an investigation of Gülen’s activities in the United States - and, unlike Erdoğan, he cannot determine the outcome of a judicial process.

In sum, Erdoğan the autocrat and Trump the wanna-be autocrat are not separated by temperament or personality but by the two very different systems in which they operate. 

As Americans remember and celebrate the Declaration of Independence from colonial rule on July 4, 1776, it is most appropriate to note and give thanks that the establishment of a truly independent judiciary has served well to constrain the autocratic ambitions of any person or party. Would that Turkey were similarly blessed.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.