Trump Oval Office meeting heads off Senate Armenian genocide bill 

This story has been updated with executive director of the AAA, Bryan Ardouny's remarks.

An Oval Office meeting set up by U.S. President Donald Trump between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and several Republican senators appears to have successfully headed off a Senate resolution recognising the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide.

Turkey has fought for decades to stop such resolutions in legislatures around the world, arguing thousands of Turks were also killed as Russian forces advancing in eastern Turkey were joined by bands of Armenian fighters. 

The U.S. House of Representatives nevertheless passed a resolution recognising the Armenian genocide by a resounding bipartisan 405-to-11 vote late last month. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez on Wednesday asked for unanimous consent to bring a similar resolution to a vote. Senate rules allow any one senator to fast track a vote by asking for unanimous consent, but they also allow any one senator to block such a move.

But after meeting Erdoğan in the Oval Office senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham unilaterally blocked the proposed Senate resolution, saying senators should not "sugarcoat history, or try to rewrite it". 

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), said Graham’s action indicated the resolution would have likely passed if given a floor vote.

“If he doesn’t like the resolution he should vote against the resolution,” Hamparian said. “If he thinks the resolution will pass then the will of the Senate should be expressed and that would be in the form of an up-or-down vote.”

The ANCA, the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), and other Armenian-American organisations have campaigned for decades for the U.S. government to recognise the genocide.

“No foreign government should dictate what the greatest deliberative body in the world can or cannot consider, and especially when it comes to genocide,” stated Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the AAA.

“While one senator may have objected to a unanimous consent request, there is still ample opportunity for the Senate to adopt S.Res. 150,” Ardouny told Ahval. This week 5 new senators co-sponsored the resolution, bringing the total co-sponsors to 27 in addition to Menendez. The AAA said it continues to meet with senators to encourage more co-sponsors.

 

Meanwhile, Erdoğan came to Washington hoping to leverage his relationship with Trump to address a laundry list of disputes between the United States and Turkey. But the Armenian genocide resolution did not appear to be a high priority for the Turkish president.

Erdoğan did call the House vote an insult to the Turkish nation, but otherwise ignored it. On his way to Washington, he appeared more concerned with fighting a potential U.S. sanctions package over Turkey’s military campaign in Syria that also passed the House 403-to-16 on Oct. 29.

With both bills gaining support in the Senate, Trump arranged Wednesday’s “legislative engagement” between Erdoğan and several senators, including Graham and Senator James Risch, who have introduced separate sanctions bills against Turkey in the Senate.

“It's no accident that the Erdoğan-Trump meeting included meetings with Senate leaders,” Elizabeth Chouldjian, communications director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). “Immediate passage of the Senate Armenian genocide resolution would send a clear message, once again, that Washington won’t be bullied, U.S. policy can’t be hijacked, and American principles are not for sale.”

Facing the momentum generated by the resounding House votes, the Turkish American Steering Committee (TASC) issued a call to action. In a letter to Senators, TASC called the Armenian genocide resolution “a wrongful conviction against people of Turkish and Muslim heritage” that occurred a 100 years ago in a “now-extinct empire”.

Together with the sanctions bills, TASC called efforts to commemorate the Armenian genocide a “racist regime of anti-Turkish legislation”. But the text of the Senate Resolution, like the bill that passed the House, makes no mention of Turkey.

The resolutions blame the Ottoman Empire for killing 1.5 million Armenians and other eastern Christians between 1915 and 1923. Historians may debate the number of victims and the timeframe of the genocide, but they fundamentally agree that the Ottoman Empire did carry out the genocide of the Armenian people.

Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and a non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said the TASC letter was both “tone deaf”, considering the Congressional audience to which it was directed, and also “no doubt heart-felt by the people who wrote it and for many in the Turkish-American community.”

Menendez last week called for a broad recalibration of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. He said that if the Armenian resolution “were to come to the floor for a vote, it would pass resoundingly and send a clarion message that recognises the truth. The Armenian genocide happened, it was a monstrous act and those who deny it are complicit in a terrible lie.”

Regardless of how much bipartisan support the Armenian genocide resolution or Turkey sanctions bills have in the Senate, it is up to the Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to ultimately decide whether or not they get a floor vote through the normal process. A close Trump ally, McConnell does not appear likely to break with the president on issues concerning Turkey.

While Graham and other Republican senators noted for their strong criticism of Turkey were meeting with Trump and Erdoğan at the White House, McConnell said from the Senate floor, “I urge this body to remain clear-eyed about our nation’s vital interests in the Middle East and the fact that advancing them will mean strengthening our relationship with this NATO ally, not weakening it further.”