Trump equivocates on whether U.S. government is mulling Turkey sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump was unclear on Thursday over whether his administration was looking at imposing sanctions on Turkey following its purchase of Russian air defense systems, sparking confusion at a tense time for relations between the two nations.

“We’re not looking at that right now,” Trump told reporters at an Oval Office event to celebrate the U.S. Special Olympics team, when asked if he was considering sanctions on Turkey.

But he appeared to contradict that statement later on Thursday, saying such a move was in fact under consideration.

“It’s a very, very difficult situation for a lot of reasons,” Trump said, when asked if he had ruled out sanctions on Ankara. “So we’re looking at it. We’ll see what we do.”

The comments came a day after the White House said Turkey’s decision made its presence in the F-35 fighter jet program impossible, a move that was expected after Ankara began accepting delivery of the Russia’s S-400 air defense system last week.

A spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan expressed “unease” on Thursday over Washington’s decision to remove Turkey from the joint strike fighter program, broadcaster CNN Turk said. Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said relations between the NATO allies could not remain healthy with such unilateral decisions, CNN Turk said.

The United States announced on Wednesday that it was beginning the process of removing Turkey from the program for the F-35 stealth fighter, the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, which is used by NATO and other partner countries.

Turkey, like other partners in the F-35 program, was part of the manufacturing supply chain for the high-tech jet aircraft, producing some 900 parts. A U.S. official said it would cost some $500 million to $600 million to shift F-35 manufacturing from Turkey.

Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Steve Holland; writing by David Alexander; editing by Susan Heavey, Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis