Two days after the incident, the White House has yet to comment on violence committed by Turkish security guards against protesters in downtown Washington, DC.
The violence erupted on Tuesday shortly after President Donald Trump welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Oval Office. In the midst of dueling pro- and anti-Erdogan protests outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence, video captured by VOA shows a group of men in dark suits breaking through the line of police separating the two groups and rushing the anti-Erdogan protesters, some of whom carried flags in Kurdish colors and signs in support of jailed Kurdish political leader Selahattin Demirtas.
— Amerika'nın Sesi (@VOATurkish) May 17, 2017
In Turkish, the VOA video identifies Erdogan’s security guards as participating in the fight, which was confirmed by the DC Metropolitan Police and the State Department. Some of the security guards were armed, which Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said made breaking up the fight “dicey.”
The State Department condemned the violence on Wednesday, saying that “violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest.” They added that they are “communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms.”
The DC Police issued a statement saying that, in conjunction with the Secret Service and the State Department, they intend to pursue charges against those involved. In a subsequent press conference, Newsham noted that diplomatic immunity could be an issue, but that it “won’t prevent us from doing what we need to do.”
“We don’t know what happened before the video was turned on. It appears to be unprovoked. And it appears to be very brutal,” he said.
The protesters were largely protesting Erdogan’s record on human rights, including Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide and its treatment of its Kurdish minority.
“It appears to be unprovoked. And it appears to be very brutal.”
The Kurds are Turkey’s largest minority group, and have been historically repressed — at times brutally — and discriminated against by the Turkish state. At present, Erdogan is conducting a massive purge across all sectors of Turkish society, and has arrested most of the leaders of the Kurdish-affiliated political party. Amidst escalating violence between Kurdish militia groups and the Turkish military, the Turkish government has placed parts of the predominantly Kurdish southeast under military control.
In March, the UN issued a report broadly condemning Turkish human rights violations in the southeast, including torture, excessive force, killings, disappearances, violence against women, cutting off civilian access to food and medical care, and curtailing free speech and political participation.
In the past year, Turkey became the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Even outside the southeast — which has become isolated from many reporters and watchdog groups due to safety concerns — anti-government protests in Turkey are often broken up with riot police, tear gas, and water cannons.
Turkish security guards' attack on peaceful protesters this wk was a despicable display of thuggery & repression – absolutely unacceptable pic.twitter.com/NQL0KychH4
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 18, 2017
Ahead of Trump’s meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of Senators issued a letter to Trump urging him to bring up Turkey’s human rights record with the increasingly authoritarian leader. After the attack, lawmakers on Twitter condemned it as “thuggery” and an assault on the American principles of free speech and assembly.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Mike Lee (R-UT) issued a statement demanding that Turkey apologize. Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ed Royce (R-CA) issued a letter to the State Department urging them to bring “all appropriate criminal charges.”
The White House, by contrast, has issued no statements, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to comment on the incident.
The Turkish Embassy issued a statement that described the anti-Erdogan protesters as being affiliated with terrorists, and described the pro-Erdogan group as being only Turkish-American citizens. They did not mention the participation of Erdogan’s bodyguards.
The White House’s puzzling silence on the issue — which has become a flashpoint example of the importance of protecting democratic ideals against government thuggery — comes amidst a spate of news connecting the Trump White House to Turkish interests through former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Michael Flynn resigned from the White House weeks into his tenure, after reports became public that he had communicated with Russian government officials before Trump’s inauguration. According to the White House, he was let go because he mislead Vice President Pence about the communications.
After Flynn’s resignation, reporting revealed that Flynn had also received about $600,000 for work benefiting the government of Turkey, for which he retroactively registered as a foreign lobbying agent. Flynn failed to disclose this on his security clearance forms.
Reporting also revealed that he was party to conversations with Turkish government officials, including President Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, about kidnapping exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen from his Pennsylvania home. Erdogan believes Gulen was behind the attempted military coup in July 2016, and has repeatedly petitioned the U.S. for his extradition.
Flynn carried out this work for Turkey while also acting as an adviser to the Trump campaign.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Trump team was aware that Flynn was under investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey before Trump’s inauguration.
According to the Times report, the FBI notified Michael Flynn on November 30th that he was under scrutiny for a November 8th op-ed he wrote in The Hill, attacking Gulen. Flynn notified the transition team’s lawyer, Donald F. McGahn (now the White House’s chief counsel) of the investigation into his Turkish lobbying on January 4th — but Trump kept Flynn as his National Security Adviser anyway, and vehemently defended him even after his resignation.
As National Security Adviser, Flynn had immense power over almost every national security decision made by the Trump administration and broad access to secret information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies.
On Wednesday, McClatchy reported that one of Flynn’s first actions as National Security Adviser was to table a national security operation that Turkey opposed.
According to the report, 10 days before Trump’s inauguration, Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice went to the Trump transition team with a plan to arm Syrian Kurdish rebels, which have had some of the best success in combating ISIS on the ground, as part of a push to retake the de-facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. As the operation would take place during Trump’s presidency, the Obama Administration wanted their sign off.
Michael Flynn, however, told Rice not to move forward, and the plan was tabled for months.
It’s unclear why Flynn chose to table the proposal, but his decision is in line with the interests of Turkey, who strongly opposes arming Syrian Kurds. The country considers Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq — who are some of the U.S. staunchest allies in the fight against allies — to be extensions of the PKK, a Kurdish militia that both Turkey and the U.S. have classed as a terrorist organization.
At the time, Flynn had not publicly disclosed that he had taken money from the Turkish government.
Last week, Trump authorized the plan to arm the Syrian Kurdish rebels, months after Flynn left. The move was sharply criticized by the Turkish government and President Erdogan.