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Will 2020 Democrats condemn the Armenian genocide?

Only four lawmakers running for president have signed on to remembrance resolutions

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is one of four Democratic presidential candidates who have co-sponsored resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is one of four Democratic presidential candidates who have co-sponsored resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Whether the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 amounted to a genocide is still a fraught political question for U.S. presidential candidates more than a century later.

The question for now is how many of the growing field of candidates might weigh in on Wednesday for the annual commemoration. April 24, 1915 is generally considered to mark the start of actions that led to the Armenian genocide.

Among the members of the House and Senate pursuing the 2020 Democratic nomination, only four have signed on to this year’s major resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide — Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. A fifth, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, expressed support for the resolution’s adoption in the House.

Harris and Warren signed on to a measure still pending before the Foreign Relations Committee that was introduced by ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey. 

Warren’s Senate office responded to a query about her support for the resolution and her potential position on the issue as president by pointing to her past remarks at an event in Boston to mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide, as well as a 2012 interview with the Armenian Weekly when she was a Senate candidate against Republican Scott P. Brown.

“If we do not recognize the horrors of the past, we risk repeating those horrors in the future. The genocide of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 is an atrocity that we must never forget,” Warren said in 2012.

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The fact that Warren’s office responded at all — either from the official or campaign side — is notable because she was the only senator to offer a substantive response for this story. CQ Roll Call asked all lawmakers officially running for president in 2020 who did not sign on to the Menendez measure for their view on the use of the term “genocide” to reflect what happened to the Armenian population. 

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has stood by last year’s April 24 statement from the president, which did not use the term “genocide” in describing what took place.

“Today we commemorate the Meds Yeghern, one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century, when one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire,” the statement read. “We recall the horrific events of 1915 and grieve for the lives lost and the many who suffered.”

Menendez pressed David Satterfield, the president’s nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, to use the term “genocide”during an April 11 confirmation hearing, to no avail.

“The president has stated that this is one of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century, and I will abide by those remarks,” Satterfield said. “Those remarks stand as a reflection of the U.S. government’s position, sir.”

The United Nations defines genocide as such: 

“Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Turkey has opposed the use of the more substantial term, and President Barack Obama avoided it for his entire presidency. During a live “Pod Save the World” taping last year, Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, described avoiding that characterization as a mistake.

Power’s position is particularly notable because she quite literally wrote the book on the definition and designation of genocide, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”

“Imagine a future where American diplomats are just called upon to distort history,” Power said on the podcast. “If you’ve ever seen someone testify before Congress asked this question … mass atrocities and horrible history and all these euphemisms. It’s un-American. Just tell the truth. It’s safer in the long run.”

“Frankly, here’s a lesson going forward. Get it done the first year,” Rhodes said. “If you don’t, it gets harder every year in a way.”

But in a sign the debate is not at all a partisan one, the lead Republican co-sponsor of the resolution is conservative GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who made his own White House run in 2016.

“We must never be silent in response to atrocities. Over one hundred years ago, the world was silent as the Armenian people suffered a horrific genocide, and today many are still unaware of it,” Cruz said in a statement when the Senate resolution was introduced. “I am proud to join Sen. Menendez and my colleagues today in introducing this resolution. May the terrors of those events awaken in us the courage to always stand for freedom against evil.”

[Rep. Jackie Speier urges Kim Kardashian to tweet at Trump about Armenian genocide]

The level of support for the House resolution is not much different among the members running for president there, with Gabbard and Moulton signing on to a resolution affirming the U.S. record on the Armenian genocide that was introduced on April 8 by California Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

A Ryan spokesman said Tuesday afternoon that the Ohio Democrat was supporting the Schiff measure.

Ryan also “believes it should be designated as a genocide,” his House communications director Michael Zetts said. There are now 89 co-sponsors of the House resolution from both sides of the aisle.

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