A violent attack blocks from the White House that left nine protestors bloodied or injured is creating a new headache for the Trump administration on the eve of the president’s first foreign trip.
The attack allegedly perpetrated by bodyguards and other supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came under fierce criticism from Washington, D.C., police and local officials, who described it as a violent attack on peaceful demonstrators.
GOP senators have also condemned the attack as an assault on U.S. democratic principles.
The administration’s reaction, in contrast, was more muted.
The State Department took more than a day to respond to the event, eventually responding with a statement saying only that State is “concerned by the violent incidents involving protestors and Turkish security personnel.”
“Violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest,” State spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
“We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms.”
And White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on the footage or on whether Trump had seen it when asked Wednesday on an Air Force One gaggle, instead referring reporters to the State Department’s statement.
The assault on pro-Kurd protesters occurred shortly after Erdogan’s Tuesday meeting with Trump at the White House.
The altercation took place Tuesday afternoon as protesters assembled outside the Turkish Embassy to criticize Turkey’s treatment of the Kurdish ethnic group.
Video shot by Voice of America, which quickly went viral, shows pro-Erdogan forces breaking through a police line to kick and punch the pro-Kurd protesters. Multiple men repeatedly kick one man on the ground as Washington police try to pull off the attackers.
Nine people were taken to local hospitals for their injuries, and two people were arrested.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington released an official statement on the event Wednesday, saying that bodyguards for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan were acting in self-defense when they were involved in a violent clash in front of the ambassador’s residence, aiming to fight off violent protesters tied to a terrorist group.
Turkey’s official news station, Anadolu, reported however that the bodyguards and Turkish citizens moved on the protesters after the police refused to silence their anti-Erdogan chants.
In the aftermath, bloodied protesters wandered the area as police officers escorted away the Turkish security officials.
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham condemned the action Wednesday as an “assault” on those protesting “peacefully,” warning that the department will “pursue everything that’s within our legal power to hold the folks that were responsible accountable for their actions.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) doubled down, calling the actions a “violent attack on a peaceful demonstration” that “is an affront to D.C. values and our rights as Americans.” The House Foreign Affairs Committee called for prosecutions in a bipartisan letter.
It’s unclear whether Turkish bodyguards allegedly involved in the attack will face charges, thanks to diplomatic immunity rules that would likely protect Erdogan’s staff.
Pursuing charges would also threaten to further inflame the uneasy relationship between the United States and its NATO ally.
Trump angered Erdogan by agreeing to send arms to Syrian Kurds fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a move Turkey fears could empower its own Kurdish minority. And Turkey’s calls for the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric and Erdogan rival whom the Turkish government claims was behind a failed 2016 coup, have so far fallen on deaf ears.
But Trump stood out in his praise for Erdogan in April, surprising the international community when he called the Turkish president to congratulate him on a controversial referendum win that expanded his power. The call earned Trump bipartisan condemnation.
While the Washington attack would normally be a major embarrassment for a presidential administration, the incident has been overshadowed by the storm of controversy swirling around Trump.
Less than an hour after police broke up the fight, for example, The New York Times reported that former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo saying Trump told him to end an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn is under fire in part for failing to disclose payments from Turkish sources.
The fallout from the Washington violence also raises new questions for the State Departmentahead of Trump’s first foreign trip, which will take him to the Middle East and Europe.
The stakes for Trump’s nine-day international trip are high as he looks to earn some positive headlines after a bruising month that has so far seen him fire Comey and potentially risk an Israeli intelligence source in a conversation with Russian diplomats.
Trump has rocked American alliances with threats to drop out of NATO and has raised eyebrows for his warmness toward Russia, given the investigation into his campaign’s Russian ties.
The Trump administration approach to the embassy violence wasn’t echoed by congressional Republicans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to Twitter Tuesday to denounce the attacks in far stronger words than those used by the State Department.
“This is the United States of America,” McCain wrote. “We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this kind of thuggish behavior.”