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White House whips Senate allies to block Armenian genocide resolution

The White House has so far succeeded in keeping the Senate from passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, but the Trump administration is slowly running out of options.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens at a rally in support of Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) in his run for Senate in Fargo, North Dakota, U.S. June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC1ECB7F9050

The White House succeeded today in keeping the Senate from recognizing the Ottoman Empire’s massacre of more than 1 million mostly Christian Armenians as a genocide. Al-Monitor has learned that the Trump administration mustered its Republican allies for the third time in a month to block the Senate from passing a resolution that Turkey vehemently opposes.

And while President Donald Trump seeks to salvage the troubled US-Turkish alliance, he’s slowly running out of Senate allies willing to take the political hit for blocking the resolution.

Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, attempted to get their Armenian genocide resolution passed unanimously on the Senate floor today — only to have their efforts thwarted by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who blocked the legislation at the White House’s behest. Menendez, however, vowed to “keep calling up the resolution every week until it passes.”

“I’m not going to stop until I go through every single senator who’s willing to come to the floor and issue an objection on behalf of the administration,” Menendez said. “Because I think Armenian-Americans need to know who stands in support of recognizing the genocide, who opposes that.”

The White House initially enlisted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to block the resolution when Menendez first tried to pass it last month — the same day Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Trump at the White House.

Graham garnered a wide array of negative headlines at the time after he said he was blocking the bill not to “sugarcoat history or rewrite it” but instead to avoid passing it while the two leaders were trying to hammer out differences over Turkey’s attack on the Syrian Kurds. The South Carolina Republican told Al-Monitor today that he would no longer oppose the resolution.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., also raised objections based on the timing during Menendez’s second attempt last month — concerns echoed by Cramer on the Senate floor today when it was his turn to block the resolution.

“I support the spirit of this resolution,” said Cramer. “If there is a right time, this isn’t it. Largely because just hours ago our president returned from London, the NATO summit with NATO leaders where this was a topic of discussion with the leadership from Turkey.”

Cramer co-sponsored a similar resolution while he served in the House. Nonetheless, he argued today that passing the resolution now would hinder the Trump administration’s effort to get Turkey to abandon the Russian S-400 missiles after Ankara tested the system’s powerful radars on US-made fighter aircraft last week, once again raising concerns that it could allow Moscow to spy on American military hardware.

However, Cramer also noted that he does “not intend to continuously object to this resolution.”

He subsequently told CNN that he expects the resolution to nonetheless pass should Menendez make good on his vow to bring it up every week.

Trump is finding it “harder and harder to find pro-Ankara allies among Senate Republicans who are — with just a handful of exceptions — sick of Erdogan and tired of enforcing his foreign vetoes,” said Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, which has spent $90,000 lobbying Congress to pass the Armenian genocide resolution and other legislation this year.

“If this issue were being played out on a chessboard, it would be something like Trump — already in a weak position and down pieces — trading away pawns, senselessly sacrificing his own pieces to a clearly lost cause.” 

Conversely, all five Senate Democrats running for president have co-sponsored the Menendez resolution. The White House did not comment on the record for this story.

Congress last passed a resolution recognizing the 1915 massacre as a genocide in 1984 but has since deferred to subsequent presidents who did not wish to upset Turkey. While Menendez and other lawmakers have repeatedly reintroduced the Armenian genocide resolution in subsequent congresses, they did not try to pass it on the floor until Turkey attacked the Syrian Kurds in October.

The Syria offensive allowed the Armenian National Committee of America to score a significant victory when the House voted to recognize the Armenian genocide 405-11 in October while passing a Turkey sanctions bill 403-16. Turkey’s envoy in Washington, Ambassador Serdar Kilic, warned lawmakers of permanent “negative resentment” between the two NATO allies before the House recognized the genocide.  

Celebrity star power has also bolstered the Armenian National Committee of America’s efforts. Dean Cain, a conservative Trump supporter best known for his role as Superman, has produced a documentary on the Armenian Genocide called “Architects of Denial.”

Shortly before Menendez attempted to pass the bill, Cain tweeted at Cramer asking him not to block the legislation, highlighting a 2017 meeting he had on the issue with the North Dakota senator, who was a member of the House at the time.

Cain traveled to Armenia earlier this year for the Impact Humanity Television and film festival. He arrived shortly after another US celebrity, Kim Kardashian, discussed the issue with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and House lawmakers in Yerevan. Kardashian has long advocated for formal US recognition of the Armenian genocide.

“Turkey has really had its heels dug in, and the reason is probably reparations and things that would happen beyond that,” Cain told Al-Monitor. “It’s just pressure from the White House and people need to know that.”

Indeed, some Armenian Americans hope that Congress’ recognition of the Armenian genocide could bolster cases in the US court system as they sue Turkey for genocide-related damages.

And even as the Senate creeps closer to following the House’s lead in recognizing the genocide, Turkey has plenty of other cause for concern on Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has refused to hold a vote on the House’s Turkey sanctions bill, arguing that the legislation is overly broad and unlikely to alter Turkey’s behavior. But another Republican leader close to Trump — Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch of Idaho — told reporters earlier this week that his committee would debate his alternative Turkey sanctions package next week.

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