Erdoğan listens to translators as he meets with Trump and senators in the Oval Office, Nov. 13. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Many were perplexed and outraged when, right after clashing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a heated Oval Office meeting on Nov. 13, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham hurried back to the Senate floor and did something that likely delighted Erdoğan. Graham blocked a resolution that would have formally recognized Turkey's genocide of the Armenian people.
Behind the scenes: Graham had just scolded Erdoğan over his invasion of Syria and attacks on the Kurds, according to sources in the room.
- As we reported at the time, Erdogan pulled out his iPad and showed the Oval Office group a propaganda video depicting the leader of the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as a terrorist.
- The South Carolina Republican then chided him over the clip. "Well, do you want me to go get the Kurds to make one about what you've done?" he said.
What happened next, which has not been previously reported: As Graham was leaving the Oval Office, senior White House staff asked him to return to the Senate and block the Armenian genocide resolution — a measure that would have infuriated Erdoğan.
- Graham confirmed this in a phone interview on Saturday.
- "After the meeting, we kind of huddled up and talked about what happened," he said. A White House legislative affairs official told Graham that Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was going to bring up his Armenian genocide resolution and asked if Graham could "please object."
- "I said sure," Graham said. "The only reason I did it is because he [Erdoğan] was still in town. ... That would've been poor timing. I'm trying to salvage the relationship if possible."
Asked whether he felt uncomfortable blocking the Armenian genocide resolution, Graham replied: "Yeah. Because I like Bob [Menendez]. He's been working on this for years, but I did think with the president of Turkey in town that was probably more than the market would bear."
- "I'm not going to object next time," Graham added.
The "next time" happened last week. Menendez and his Republican Senate colleague Ted Cruz introduced the Armenian genocide resolution again. This time, the White House asked another Republican Senate ally, David Perdue, to block it.
- "Senator Perdue objected due to concerns that passage of the resolution would jeopardize the sensitive negotiations going on in the region with Turkey and other allies," said a Perdue spokesperson.
The big picture: The Trump administration is pushing Turkey to give up its Russian-made S-400 air defense system. While they're negotiating, they're trying to block Congress from calling out Turkey’s human rights atrocities.
- Trump has also been reluctant to sign legislation — which Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities — to punish China for its repression of Hong Kong. Trump tells aides he wants to get a trade deal first.
- But Trump will probably have no choice but to sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. As Sen. Cruz said, Congress has enough votes to override a presidential veto.