In an unusual rebuke, the White House said Friday that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had misrepresented a telephone conversation with President Barack Obama last month. A White House official said Erdogan’s version of the Feb. 19 conversation, which he’s now repeated twice, is “not accurate.”
The statement came after Erdogan, in a television interview Thursday, said he’d gotten a sympathetic response from Obama to his complaint about a Turkish Islamic scholar living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania.
Cleric Fetullah Gulen leads a movement that is said to have enormous influence in the Turkish judiciary and police. After a graft and corruption scandal erupted in mid-December, Erdogan reassigned the prosecutors and thousands of police and charged Gulen with creating a “state within a state.”
Erdogan has fired four ministers in the scandal, but a series of purported wiretaps leaked YouTube last week implicated the prime minister and members of his family in the scandal. Erdogan has charged Gulen and his supporters with responsibility for the eavesdropping and with leaking phone intercepts.
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Erdogan said he told Obama “that the person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania. I told him this clearly, ” the official Anadolu Agency quoted Erdogan as saying. “I said, ‘I expect what’s necessary (to be done).’ You have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security.”
Erdogan said Obama “looked at it positively. ‘We got the message,’ he said.”
The White House said Friday that “the response attributed to President Obama with regard to Mr. Gulen is not accurate.”
The White House also said Obama had noted “the importance of sound policies rooted in the rule of law” as well as the importance of “mutually respectful relations between our two countries.”
Turkey is a vital NATO ally, and its geographical location, its history as a Eurasian empire, its thriving economy and its democratic system give it a critical role in the region. Not only is Turkey at the frontline in the war in Syria, but as a Black Sea nation, which once dominated the Crimea and views itself as the protector of the Crimean Tatars, it also could be come a player in the Ukraine crisis.
The White House statement took note of this, saying that the U.S. commitment “to working together with Turkey, particularly on a variety of regional issues of mutual interest, continues.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.