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Trump’s tariff tweet inflames Turkey’s economic crisis and strained U.S. relations

President Trump turned a simmering conflict with Turkey to a boil, tweeting that he would double tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey was at economic war, as the country's currency tumbled as much as 20 percent to a record low. Already, U.S.-Turkey relations have been strained over an array of conflicts. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Today, President Trump turned a simmering conflict with Turkey to a boil. He tweeted this morning that he would double tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum, and wrote: "Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time."

    Turkey is a member of NATO and a major player in every hot spot across the Middle East. The tensions now between the two allies is the highest it's been in decades.

    Here's foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    In front of a faithful flag-waving crowd, Turkey's president today delivered defiance.

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was at war, and the fight would be waged by every Turk.

    PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): If there's anyone that has dollars, euros or gold under your pillows, they should go to our banks and change them into Turkish lira. This is a national struggle. This will be my people's response to those waging an economic war against us.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Erdogan's populist appeal paints the U.S. as the reason for Turkey's economic misery.

    Today, the Turkish lira tumbled as much as 20 percent to a record low. It's fallen 40 percent this year, making daily life difficult for many Turks, like Ali Uzun, who has to choose between paying rent and eating.

    ALI UZUN (through interpreter): If I pay rent with my pension, what will I eat or drink? It's impossible to cope with this. One must work, and if you can't find extra work, you have spend some days hungry or thirsty.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Turkey doesn't actually trade that much steel or aluminum with the U.S., but the president's tweet ripped through Turkey like a shockwave, reducing confidence in an already weak economy, says the Washington Institute's Soner Cagaptay.

  • SONER CAGAPTAY:

    So, the economy was brittle. It was going to have problems regardless of ties with the United States. I think that the economic sanctions that President Trump has slapped on Turkey will exacerbate the economic crisis, because it is signaling to the markets, at a time when Turkey is already volatile, that this is not the country in which they should be investing.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    U.S.-Turkish relations were already strained because of U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria that Turkey considers terrorists, because of a close relationship with Russia, and Turkey's purchasing Russian weapons that are effective against U.S. jets, and because of terrorism charges against North Carolina Pastor Andrew Brunson, in the white.

    Brunson was moved from jail to house arrest, but Vice President Pence said last month that wasn't good enough.

  • VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE:

    To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America. Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now, or be prepared to face the consequences.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Those consequences are pointed at a NATO ally, at a country that exerts major influence on U.S. foreign policy priorities, Iran's nuclear program, protests in Iraq that threaten the country's stability, and the fight against ISIS in Syria.

  • SONER CAGAPTAY:

    Whatever the U.S. policies are regarding those states or entities, they're much easier, much less cumbersome, much less costly with Turkey on board. So Turkey is clearly not indispensable, but it's vital.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Turkey blames the U.S. for not extraditing Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of masterminding the 2016 failed coup. Erdogan paints himself as the only one who can secure Turkey from its enemies. He has cracked down on opponents and consolidated power.

    And he could use this moment to double down, says Cagaptay, who's written a new biography on Erdogan.

  • SONER CAGAPTAY:

    Erdogan knows that he can benefit from economic nationalism. He has a base that loves him, that adores him. That half that adores him is buying into Erdogan's narrative that Erdogan is going to make Turkey great again.

    And now they're going to buy into his narrative that Turkey faces economic war from the United States. He didn't want this crisis, but he knows that he has it now, and he is going to make best use of it. And the way to use it is to use the crisis to blame the United States for Turkey's economic collapse.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Erdogan has rallied Turkey with promises of prosperity, power, and piety. If he is going to deliver, he will need President Trump to back down, or he could turn Turkey away from one of its historic allies.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Nick Schifrin.

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