WASHINGTON – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a White House news conference Wednesday that he had returned the letter President Donald Trump sent him last month warning him not to be a "tough guy" as his military prepared to invade Kurdish territory in northern Syria.
"This letter was re-presented to Mr. President this afternoon," Erdogan said when asked why he ignored Trump's advice and proceeded with the military incursion.
"We gave back the letter that we have received," he repeated at the end of his response, apparently rejecting reports he had thrown the letter in the trash.
Trump wrote the letter advising Erdogan to take a diplomatic approach to the situation amid an uproar over his decision to pull U.S. troops out of the area, paving the way for Turkish forces to advance.
Erdogan had frequently expressed his desire to take military action against the Kurds in the region, whom he considers terrorists allied with Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey. But U.S. forces acted as a buffer between Turkey and the Kurds, whose Syrian Democratic Forces lost 11,000 fighters battling against the Islamic State alongside American troops.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers decried Trump's sudden decision to pull out of the area after an Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan, warning it paved the way for the slaughter and "ethnic cleansing" of an ally, emboldened Iran and Russia, and opened the door to an ISIS resurgence.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a normally staunch Trump supporter, said the move to abandon a U.S. ally was "irresponsible" and a "stain on America's honor," though he later tempered his criticism after Trump agreed to leave some U.S. troops to protect the area's oil fields.
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In the Oct. 9 letter, Trump told Erdogan, "Let's work out a good deal!" He said the Turkish president did not "want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don't want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy," in an apparent threat to apply sanctions if Erdogan went ahead with his attack on the Kurds.
"Don't let the world down. You can make a great deal," Trump wrote. He said Abdi was "willing to negotiate with you, and he is willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past."
"History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way," Trump said. "It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!"
After receiving the letter, Erdogan told reporters that it "did not go hand in hand with political and diplomatic courtesy."
"Of course, we haven't forgotten it. It would not be right for us to forget it," Erdogan said last month.
On Wednesday, Erdogan took issue with the letter's suggestion of using Abdi as an "interlocutor." Referring to him by his given name, Ferhat Abdi Sahin, Erdogan said Adbi was a terrorist "instrumental in the killing of hundreds of Turkish civilians."
The U.S. brokered a cease-fire between the Kurds and the Turks, which Trump said is "holding very well," but the SDF says clashes continue with armed groups supported by Turkey. On Wednesday, the SDF shared video on Twitter of what it said were Turkish attacks on villages.
The Kurdish group says more than 500 civilians have been killed since Turkey's military incursion began and that more than 300,000 people have been displaced.
In light of Erdogan's actions in Syria, several lawmakers objected to Trump hosting him at the White House, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he shared his "colleagues' uneasiness at seeing President Erdogan honored at the White House."
Trump was less concerned about such appearances and declared himself "a big fan" of Erdogan, who he said has a "great relationship with the Kurds."
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, David Jackson, John Fritze, Michael Collins and Courtney Subramanian
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's 'don't be tough guy' letter to Turkey's Erdogan gets returned