In a stinging rebuke to Turkey, the Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide – marking a shift in U.S. policy despite repeated objections from the Trump administration.
The Senate’s action is historic, and it will almost certainly exacerbate U.S.-Turkey tensions. The genocide measure officially recognizes the systematic killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.
President Donald Trump has cultivated a close relationship with Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – hosting Erdogan at the White House in November despite Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria. Until Thursday, Trump’s GOP allies in the Senate had repeatedly blocked the genocide measure.
“I have no doubt that Ergodan has expressed his deep … opposition to the genocide resolution” in his conversations with Trump, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told USA TODAY just before the Senate action.
For years, Turkey had successfully deployed an army of high-priced lobbyists to stop the measure. Ankara spent more than $6 million to press its agenda in Washington in 2018, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.
But that effort collapsed on Thursday when Menendez pressed for its adoption and no senator objected.
The New Jersey Democrat broke down in tears after the measure sailed through, after he began recounting the horrors of the genocide.
“The killing was done with axes, cleavers, shovels and pitchforks. It was like a slaughterhouse,” Menendez said, quoting a priest who documented the atrocities at the time. “Infants were dashed on rocks before the eyes of their mothers.”
It was clear that Turkey’s “ultimate goal was to eliminate the Armenian people,” Menendez added.
“The Senate finally took a stand and spoke the truth – spoke the truth to darkness, spoke truth to evil, spoke truth to murder, spoke truth to genocide – and finally honored the 1.5 million innocent lives lost,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who sponsored the resolution with Menendez.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, nor did a spokesperson for Turkey’s embassy in Washington.
The House overwhelmingly passed the genocide measure in October, amid a wave of anger at Turkey over its decision to attack America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, who helped U.S. forces defeat the Islamic State terrorist group. Some critics of Turkey said its attack on the Kurds carried echoes of the Armenian genocide.
“Members of my own family were among those murdered, and my parents fled with my grandparents to America,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., a first-generation Armenian-American, said during the House floor debate. “What all of the persecuted had in common was that they were Christians.”
In an interview this week, Eshoo told USA TODAY that while some may view the resolution as symbolic, it is deeply personal and meaningful to Armenian-Americans like her. As a young girl, Eshoo said she vividly remembers a story her aunt told her.
“Her mother had sewn coins into the hem of her skirt” and told her and her sisters to flee as their village came under attack, Eshoo recounted. “When they were running, they looked behind them. The whole village was on fire. They lost their parents.”
America’s refusal to label the murders a “genocide,” she said, represented a grievous denial of history and a message to Armenians that “all the lives that were lost” went unrecognized.
“The recognition of what actually took place has a sense of cleansing to it,” she said.
Menendez had previously tried three times to bring it up in the Senate. But each time, a Republican senator objected, reportedly acting at the behest of the White House.
On Nov. 13, for example, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fierce critic of Turkey’s invasion of Syria, blocked the genocide measure after the White House expressed concerns about it.
Graham told Axios that a White House legislative affairs official had asked him if he would “please object” when Menendez called it up that day. Graham had been at the White House to confront Erdogan over Syria.
“I said sure,” Graham told Axios. “The only reason I did it is because he [Erdogan] was still in town. … That would’ve been poor timing. I’m trying to salvage the relationship if possible.”
The Armenian genocide began in 1915 during World War I, as Turkish leaders began to murder and deport hundreds of thousands of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. While the modern-day Turkish government has taken steps to address the atrocities, it has refused to recognize the scope of the killings and disputes it was a genocide.
For years, Turkish officials have argued that Congress would severely damage U.S.-Turkey relations by passing such a resolution.
In an Oct. 25 missive, Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S. warned lawmakers that passing the genocide measure could jeopardize future economic cooperation and create a lasting hostility between the two NATO allies.
“I call upon you not to play a part in creating a permanent negative resentment in our historically close and friendly relations,” the diplomat, Serdar Kilic, wrote in the letter.
Turkey had also deployed “a phalanx of their lobbyists” to pressure lawmakers to oppose the genocide bill, Menendez told USA TODAY. He said lobbyists on Turkey’s payroll were devoting more energy to blocking the genocide resolution than to opposing punitive sanctions legislation that is also gaining steam in the Senate.
Menendez said he was thankful the resolution passed “at a time in which there are still survivors of the genocide (and they) will be able to see that the Senate acknowledges what they’ve been through.”
Thursday’s vote is a blow to Turkey as well as to Trump, said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington foreign policy institute. He said in previous years, Turkey has recalled its ambassador and threatened other counter measures when the genocide bill gained momentum.
“This shows the weakening … position of Turkey on Capitol Hill and the inability of Trump to prevent” anti-Turkey bills from advancing in Congress, he said.
Like Trump, previous American presidents have intervened to stop Congress from passing the Armenian genocide resolution.
“We have significant interests in this troubled region of the world,” then-President Bill Clinton wrote in an October 2000 letter to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “Consideration of the resolution at this sensitive time will negatively affect those interests and could undermine efforts to encourage improved relations between Armenia and Turkey.”
That argument seems to have lost its luster now. The U.S.-Turkey alliance has deeply frayed in recent months, not only because of Turkey’s invasion of Syria but also because Erdogan pressed ahead with Turkey’s decision to purchase a Russian missile system. He took those steps in the face of fierce objections from Washington.
Menendez said Trump’s embrace of Erdogan was perplexing given those developments. Turkey’s opposition to the genocide measure was equally confounding, he said.
“This was the Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t modern-day Turkey,” he said. “They should be able to recognize that historical fact and move on. But they’re unwilling to do so.”