Freed by Turkey and back in U.S., pastor prays with Trump
WASHINGTON — Pastor Andrew Brunson, freed Friday after being detained in a Turkish prison for nearly two years, flew home to the United States on Saturday, hugged his children on the tarmac and headed to the White House, where he kneeled in prayer as he held the hand of President Donald Trump.
The Oval Office visit punctuated a tumultuous two days for Brunson, 50, who on Friday didn’t know what his fate would be, fearing he’d be sentenced to as many as 35 years in prison.
“From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours, that’s not bad,” Trump said.
The pastor, a longtime resident of Turkey, had been arrested along with thousands of other people after an unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt. He was accused of aiding the movement led by the alleged mastermind of the coup, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and is a political foe of Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
Brunson was also indicted on charges of having contact with Kurdish separatists who have been designated as terrorists by Turkey and the United States. Brunson and the Trump administration have said the charges were bogus.
“It was hard for him and really the Lord pulled him through,” his wife, Norine, said near the close of the White House gathering.
Brunson’s release had been a top priority for evangelical Christians, and Trump is celebrating the pastor’s return as a diplomatic coup for his administration. Trump tweeted on Saturday morning, “It will be wonderful to see and meet him. He is a great Christian who has been through such a tough experience. I would like to thank President @RT_Erdogan for his help!”
At the White House, Brunson thanked the president for helping win his release.
“You really fought for us, unusually so,” Brunson told Trump. “From the time you took office, we know that you’ve been engaged.”
The United States and Turkey have extensive military and security ties but have had a fraught relationship marked by distrust in recent years.
U.S. officials and others close to the case had signaled that Brunson might be released imminently after negotiations that included the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Turkey. The agreement grew out of talks at last month’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, attended by Trump and Erdogan.
Trump on Saturday insisted that he made no concessions to Erdogan to secure the release of Brunson.
Trump claimed the disappearance and suspected killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul had nothing to do with the timing of Brunson’s release from prison this week.
The White House event was attended by a throng of senators and administration officials. Brunson thanked many of them for their efforts to free him, and told the president that he and his family pray for him often.
“I need it probably more than anybody in this room,” the president quipped.
The pastor then went on one knee and prayed that the president be blessed with “supernatural wisdom.”
When the reverential moment was over, Trump rather abruptly looked at Norine Brunson and asked her who she had voted for — before admitting that he already knew she’d voted for him.