For the past 36 hours, Washington has been consumed by a pair of scandals that even eternally moderate commentators now say has spread the whiff of possible doom around the Trump presidency. On Monday it was the Washington Post that revealed that Donald Trump had divulged classified counter-terrorism information last week to Russia, potentially compromising U.S. intelligence sharing with allies. Yesterday, it was the turn of The New York Times, which broke the news that Trump had requested in February that then FBI Director James Comey halt the investigation against National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Whether this turns out to be the final implosion of his presidency, Trump is trying to maintain his schedule, which includes the start of his first foreign trip later this week. But on Tuesday, the agenda was already complicated even under normal circumstances, with a much-anticipated visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Two major issues are currently driving a stake between U.S. and Turkey relations. The first regards Turkey’s wish to extradite exiled Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen from his current home in the U.S., with Ankara blaming last summer’s failed coup attempt in Turkey on Gülen. The second, and more pressing, regards the Kurdish question. The U.S. has decided to directly arm the Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS. Erdoğan sees such support as undermining his government’s attempt to limit the longtime push for Kurdish autonomy on Turkish territory.
While inside the White House the two presidents politely agreed to disagree, outside Erdoğan’s own bodyguards were beating up peaceful Kurdish protesters near the Turkish Embassy, just a ten-minute stroll away. Videos show men with bloodied faces and shirts, and one protester holding a megaphone getting kicked in the head by a man in a suit. Nine people were injured and two were arrested following the scuffle.
This is not the first instance of belligerence from Erdoğan’s security detail in the U.S. In September 2014, they assaulted Turkish reporters outside of a New York hotel where Erdoğan and Vice President Biden were meeting. In March 2016, they were involved in an altercation outside the Brookings Institution in Washington during the Nuclear Security Summit.
Few contest that both Erdoğan and Trump, in 2014 and 2016, were democratically elected to lead their respective nations. But a democracy can only live up to its name if its chosen leaders understand that their personal authority ends where the rule of law begins.