WASHINGTON ―President Donald Trump on Monday adopted a controversial but traditional Washington line by avoiding the term “genocide” in describing the Turkish government’s pogrom against its Armenian citizens in 1915.
In a statement issued on the day historians say the genocide began, Trump noted Armenians’ mass suffering and the deaths of more than 1 million people, but he did not say there was a “genocide,” a step advocates say is essential for the sake of victims, honesty about the past and America’s credibility as a moral actor.
“Sadly, he ended his first 100 days in office on the most shameful of notes, and has cemented his position as the ultimate Washington politician,” Steve Oshana, executive director of the Middle East Christian advocacy group A Demand for Action, wrote on Facebook after seeing Trump’s statement.
For years, concerns about angering Turkey, a strategically important partner for the U.S., and strong lobbying efforts by the Turks have stymied attempts to change official U.S. government policy to acknowledge the genocide. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan did use the term in office, but George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama shied away from it, even fighting congressional efforts to endorse it.
Trump crafted an image of himself as a gutsy outsider on the campaign trail and in doing so had raised expectations that he might challenge the taboo, Oshana said. But his statement reflected the power that Washington orthodoxy ― the logic of the “swamp” that he pledged to drain ― retains in the nation’s capital.
It’s hard to publicly admit to toeing the Washington line while in office. But former top officials have more leeway to expose hypocrisy and moral failures. Hours after Trump issued his statement, Samantha Power, a top aide to Obama, tweeted out a public apology for the former administration’s failure to acknowledge the genocide ― rare for a member of a team that has loudly defended its approach to foreign policy and human rights in the face of serious criticism.
As a senator, Obama had long supported congressional attempts to recognize the genocide. He promised he would do so in the Oval Office.
Trump was less forthcoming about how he would handle the issue. But a complicating factor has been his apparent fascination with strongman-type rulers, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump has cheered Erdogan as he has consolidated his power. Earlier this month, Trump was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Erdogan after he won a contentious and arguably unfair referendum election earlier this month that increased his authority. (Despite the chumminess, his careful comments on the genocide didn’t entirely satisfy the Turks ― Erdogan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned it Monday evening, and the Turkish efforts to trivialize the genocide in the U.S. and elsewhere continue.)
The use of the genocide label matters for a range of reasons, including because it helps the ongoing court battles of families trying to win back stolen property and could deter further human rights abuses by Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government, Oshana told HuffPost. His organization was at the center of the fight to make Congress and the Obama administration acknowledge the so-called Islamic State’s assault on minority groups, notably Christians and Yazidis, as a genocide.
Still, Trump avoided breaking the mould. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, noted the continuity in his Monday press briefing.
“The statement that was put out is consistent with the statements that have been put out for at least several of the past administrations,” Spicer said. “So I think if you look back to the language that President Obama, President Bush, etc., have used, the language that the president used is consistent with all of that.”