On Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan huddled at the White House – and then gave a joint press conference.
Within hours, Erdogan was at the Turkish ambassador’s home in upper Northwest Washington, watching as his personal guards participated in a bloody and violent clash with protesters gathered on the street outside the residence.
In the video above, Erdogan can be seen watching the clash – in which nine people were hospitalized – before heading into the ambassador’s home.
Even before those protests turned violent, there was considerable unhappiness within the Turkish community regarding Trump’s willingness to offer Erdogan an official White House visit. Human rights watchers have criticized the increasingly repressive nature of Erdogan’s regime, particularly in the wake of an April referendum that will greatly increase the president’s power.
Trump made no mention of those tensions on Tuesday. “It is a pleasure to welcome President Erdogan for his first visit to the White House in years,” he said. “The American and Turkish peoples have been friends and allies for many, many decades.”
(When Erdogan won the referendum, Trump called him to say congratulations; that made Trump the first western leader to do so.)
But in the wake of the bloody clash on Thursday (of which there is some evidence Erodgan may have been personally involved in), the White House has said nothing publicly. According to CNN’s James Masters, the Turkish ambassador was summoned to the State Department on Wednesday. “The State Department has raised its concerns about these events at the highest levels and a thorough investigation that will allow us to hold the responsible individuals accountable is of the utmost importance to us,” a State official told Masters.
Other Republicans have urged much stronger action. Arizona Sen. John McCain, in a letter to Erdogan co-written with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, insisted that “the actions of your staff violate the constitutional protections of freedom of the press and freedom of assembly enjoyed by all Americans.”
McCain went even further in an interview on Thursday. “We should throw their ambassador the hell out of the United States of America,” McCain said. “This is the United States of America. This isn’t Turkey; this isn’t a third-world country; and this kind of thing cannot go unresponded to diplomatically.”
To be clear, a clash between protesters and Erdogan’s protective team can’t be – and shouldn’t be – laid at the feet of the Trump administration.
But Trump has a record in office of welcoming and praising authoritarian leaders – including Erdogan. And, even in recent weeks, we’ve seen several high profile clashes between reporters and federal law enforcement officials. On Thursday CQ Roll Call reporter John Donnelly was forcibly kept from asking a question of the Federal Communications Commission chair after an open hearing. Earlier this month, the security detail for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price manhandled a reporter in West Virginia who was was asking questions of Price regarding coverage for domestic violence in the American Health Care Act.
These sorts of clashes are on the rise. The question now is what to do about it.
While Trump can’t be blamed directly, he can, as the leader of the United States, do what he can to mitigate them. A strong condemnation by Trump of the behavior of Erdogan’s guards would send a clear message: We don’t tolerate this stuff in the United States. Ditto the treatment of Donnelly.
Trump’s silence on these matters is a missed opportunity. Standing up for the rights of free speech and free demonstration isn’t a partisan endeavor; it’s a bedrock value of what it means to be an American.