WASHINGTON — Ahead of Saturday's annual commemoration of the killing of more than a million Armenians a century ago, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are pressing President Joe Biden to become the first U.S. president to acknowledge the events as genocide.
Armenian Americans, including the large diaspora in Southern California, have fought for decades to get the federal government to identify the yearslong slaughter during the fall of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. But the acknowledgment has remained elusive, falling victim to political worries about destroying an important relationship with what is now Turkey, a NATO ally.
Biden is widely expected to make the declaration in a statement Saturday, according to several people familiar with the conversations. Asked Wednesday whether he would do so, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she didn't "have anything to get ahead of that at this point in time."
Biden promised as a candidate that he would formally acknowledge the genocide as president, a pledge lawmakers are lobbying him to live up to on Saturday. And as ties between the U.S. and Turkey have become strained in recent years, advocates say there is no need to continue to indulge the country's objections to using the term.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a decadeslong proponent of labeling the events as genocide, has taken his pitch directly to the White House chief of staff and national security director, urging them to make the acknowledgment, particularly while the last survivors may still see it happen.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken with the same message.
"I would expect the president, being a man of his word, will do what he said he would do in the campaign, which is to recognize the genocide," Menendez said. "Other presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, haven't done it. I think those have been mistakes. If 'never again' is supposed to have meaning, it starts with at a minimum recognizing when a genocide is a genocide."
Schiff, Menendez and nearly 150 other lawmakers similarly demanded in recent letters that Biden make the acknowledgment.
Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, held annually on April 24, marks the day in 1915 when Ottoman authorities rounded up and killed hundreds of Armenian leaders in the city that is today known as Istanbul. It marked the start of a yearslong campaign that resulted in the death of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians.
Turkish leaders have long rejected the idea that their country's founders engaged in genocide. This week, Turkish officials warned that a formal declaration otherwise would further damage the U.S.-Turkey relationship.