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May 26, 2017

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For Trump, no qualms in embracing autocrats

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Turkey's president for sweeping up more power. He hailed Egypt's strongman leader as a "fantastic guy." When China's president visited, Trump touted a burgeoning friendship and made no public mention of Beijing's dismal human rights record.

Since taking office, Trump has displayed a striking willingness to embrace autocrats as potential partners in his "America First" agenda, even if it means ignoring their heavy-handed tactics and repression at home. It's a posture he also took toward Russian President Vladimir Putin until a dispute over Syria led him last week to declare U.S.-Russian ties at an "all-time low."

Trump is hardly the first U.S. president willing to look the other way in dealings with governments that flout democratic values. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have cooperated closely with Saudi Arabia and China. President Barack Obama opened new diplomatic channels with Iran and Cuba, despite concerns about their repressive rulers.

But rarely are U.S. presidents as warm and unabashed about their relationships with autocrats.

Trump's comfort level seems to stem in part from his background in business, where the details of a deal mattered more than the negotiating partner and flattery can get results.

When they were forced to deal with imperfect allies, Trump's predecessors, including Obama and President George W. Bush, made a point of using the moment to promote American ideals. They often followed meetings with statements about human rights or gathered separately with advocates or opposition leaders.

On Monday, as international monitors and European allies voiced concerns about the slanted political playing field in Turkey's referendum, the White House said Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on a victory that grants him more power. The message was at odds with Trump's own State Department, which expressed unease about a referendum that allows Erdogan to fulfill his long-held ambition for a presidency with executive powers.

Erdogan government has imprisoned scores of Turkish journalists. And since a failed coup last year, Turkey has arrested thousands of others accused of possible involvement.

"The president's number one job is to keep Americans safe," Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. "And if he needs to work with countries like Turkey and others to do that, that's his priority and what his focus is."

The White House's readout of the Trump-Erdogan call focused its concerns on the Islamic State and Syria's civil war, which the U.S. and Turkey are coordinating efforts on. Turkey is a U.S. key ally against IS, even if its poorly controlled border had been a contributing factor of the group's expansion across Syria and Iraq.

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