In May, employees of a foreign government attacked US demonstrators, injuring at least 11 people. The main response has come not from the White House, but from a local police department. And all this occurred against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s disdain for freedom of speech, his admiration for foreign strongmen, his vulnerability to foreign government pressure on his businesses, and his team’s seeming penetration by foreign agents.
On a pleasant sunny day, about two dozen demonstrators gathered peacefully in a grassy area across from the Turkish ambassador’s residence at Sheridan Circle in Washington, DC. They were protesting the visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and holding the flag of a Kurdish political party when black-suited men from President Erdoğan’s security detail assaulted them. Videos from the scene show the Turkish presidential bodyguards kicking and punching the demonstrators as Erdoğan watched. The DC police intervened to stop the attack, but the Turkish bodyguards continued to attack the demonstrators even while police tried to control the chaos.
President Trump wasn’t at Sheridan Circle beating those demonstrators. He was in the White House, having just posed for a press opportunity with President Erdoğan. But he is not entirely blameless either.
First, he has repeatedly incited violence against peaceful protesters at his own events. This isn’t a secret; the video is on the internet. He urges crowds to “knock the crap” out of protesters. When the crowds do just that, he says it’s “appropriate” and “what we need more of,” and offers to pay their legal fees. So it’s not surprising that when protesters annoy him, he tells supporters to “get ’em outta here!” and then the protesters are beaten. His lawyers spin this as something other than incitement to violence, but a federal judge was not fooled. And Erdoğan’s bodyguards don’t seem to have read those legal briefs.
But it’s also no coincidence that this was Turkey rather than some other country. Turkey is a US ally, but in recent years, it has descended into authoritarianism under President Erdoğan. (Turkey’s response to the event, in fact, was to file a formal complaint with the United States for allowing a “provocative” demonstration.)
And it’s no coincidence that this tepid response happened under the Trump administration rather than another, because the president is locked in a sordid embrace with the Turkish government.
Trump himself has openly admitted that he has a “little conflict of interest” in dealings with Turkey because of his buildings there — the Trump Towers Istanbul. In a December 2015 radio interview on Breitbart News, host (now White House chief strategist) Steve Bannon asked Trump if Turkey was a “reliable partner.” Trump responded:
I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.
Erdoğan (who, as Ivanka Trump tweeted, was present for the 2012 launch of the real estate project) has not hesitated to use this leverage. In June 2016 after a statement by Trump angered Erdoğan, the Turkish leader threatened to remove the name “Trump” from the buildings — a threat he only dropped after Trump praised Erdoğan’s strongman tactics in dealing with opposition. Since then, Erdoğan has reciprocated by defending President Trump against protesters in the United States.
Then there is the disgraced Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who served as a key campaign adviser to candidate Trump while being secretly paid to represent Turkish government interests. The Trump administration’s transition team knew that he might be required to register as a foreign agent under the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act. But Trump appointed him as national security adviser nonetheless, until he was forced to resign after just 24 days on the job. In March, General Flynn belatedly filed foreign agent registration paperwork, disclosing that he had earned over half a million dollars as an unregistered Turkish agent while advising Donald Trump on national security matters.
It gets worse. According to James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, in September 2016, General Flynn met with Turkish government officials to discuss kidnapping a Pennsylvania resident (originally from Turkey) and whisking him out of the country to a fate unknown.
This web of squalid connections may explain why the White House did not say a word that day, or the next, about the Turkish presidential bodyguards’ assault on peaceful protesters on US soil. On the day of the assault, the only government agencies to report the event were the DC Fire Department and the Turkish-language edition of Voice of America. Belatedly, a State Department spokesperson eventually issued a short statement, and the department summoned the Turkish ambassador to its offices.
The DC police announced criminal charges and arrest warrants against 12 Turkish security officials in June, but these officials are back in Turkey and are unlikely to see the inside of DC Superior Court.
As for President Trump and his prolific Twitter account? Silence.
Of course, it is possible that a president operating in good faith might decide to tread carefully with a key US ally in a problematic region of the world. But Donald Trump is not a good-faith president, and we will never know whether his silence is because of a considered national security judgment, or because of a pair of luxury buildings with his name on them.
Those peaceful demonstrators have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to speak and “peaceably to assemble.” Trump swore an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That includes defending the First Amendment, and it includes defending people on US soil from attack by security forces from a foreign country. And there’s no exception for a pair of fancy buildings.