Trump cel­e­brates re­turn of U.S. pas­tor from Tur­key

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAR­LENE SUPERVILLE AND ZEKE MILLER

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump wel­comed Amer­i­can pas­tor An­drew Brun­son to the Oval Of­fice on Satur­day, cel­e­brat­ing his re­lease from nearly two years of con­fine­ment in Tur­key that had sparked a diplo­matic row with a key ally and outcry from U.S. evan­gel­i­cal groups.

Brun­son, who re­turned to the United States aboard a mil­i­tary jet shortly be­fore their meet­ing, ap­peared to be in good health and good spir­its. He thanked Trump for work­ing to se­cure his free­dom and then led his fam­ily in prayer for the pres­i­dent. “You re­ally fought for us,” he told Trump.

“From a Turk­ish pri­son to the White House in 24 hours, that’s not bad,” Trump said.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials cast Brun­son’s re­lease as vin­di­ca­tion of Trump’s hard-nosed ne­go­ti­at­ing

stance, say­ing Tur­key tried to set terms for Brun­son’s re­lease, but Trump was in­sis­tent on Brun­son’s re­lease with­out con­di­tions. Trump main­tained there was no deal for Brun­son’s free­dom, but the pres­i­dent dan­gled the prospect of bet­ter re­la­tions be­tween the U.S. and its NATO ally.

“We do not pay ran­som in this coun­try,” Trump said.

Where pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions kept ne­go­ti­a­tions over U.S. pris­on­ers held abroad close to the vest, Trump has el­e­vated them to causes célèbres, strik­ing a tough line with al­lies and foes alike.

Trump thanked Tur­key’s pres­i­dent, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, who had re­sisted the de­mands of Trump and other high­level U.S. of­fi­cials for Brun­son’s re­lease. Er­do­gan had in­sisted that his coun­try’s courts are in­de­pen­dent, though he pre­vi­ously had sug­gested a pos­si­ble swap for Brun­son.

The U.S. had re­peat­edly called for Brun­son’s re­lease and, this year, sanc­tioned two Turk­ish of­fi­cials and dou­bled tar­iffs on steel and alu­minum im­ports cit­ing in part Brun­son’s plight.

Trump said the U.S. greatly ap­pre­ci­ated Brun­son’s re­lease and said the move “will lead to good, per­haps great, re­la­tions” be­tween the U.S. and fel­low NATO ally Tur­key, and said the White House would “take a look” at the sanc­tions.

Brun­son’s home­com­ing amounts to a diplo­matic high note for Trump, who is count­ing on the sup­port of evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians for Repub­li­can can­di­dates in the Nov. 6 elec­tion. Thou­sands of Trump’s sup­port­ers cheered Fri­day night at a rally in Ohio when Trump in­formed them that Brun­son was once again a free man.

Trump asked Brun­son and his fam­ily which can­di­date they voted for in 2016, say­ing he was con­fi­dent they had gone for him. “I would like to say I sent in an ab­sen­tee bal­lot from pri­son,” Brun­son quipped, be­fore pray­ing that God grant Trump “su­per­nat­u­ral wis­dom.”

Evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers over­whelm­ingly voted for the pres­i­dent de­spite dis­com­fort with his per­sonal short­com­ings, in large part be­cause he pledged to cham­pion their causes, from de­fend­ing per­se­cuted Chris­tians over­seas ap­point­ing con­ser­va­tive jus­tices to the Supreme Court. In the space of seven days, less than a month from the midterm elec­tions, Trump de­liv­ered on both fronts.

Brun­son’s case has been cham­pi­oned by prom­i­nent evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers such as Tony Perkins, as well as Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence.

First word of Brun­son’s ar­rival back on Amer­i­can soil Satur­day came from Perkins, pres­i­dent of the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil. Perkins tweeted just af­ter noon that he had landed at a mil­i­tary base out­side Wash­ing­ton with Brun­son and his wife, Norine.

Er­do­gan said he hoped the two coun­tries will con­tinue to co­op­er­ate “as it be­fits two al­lies.” Er­do­gan also called for joint ef­forts against ter­ror­ism, and he listed the Is­lamic State group, Kur­dish mil­i­tants and the net­work of a U.S.-based Mus­lim cleric whom Tur­key blames for a failed coup in 2016.

Re­la­tions be­tween the coun­tries have be­come se­verely strained over Brun­son’s de­ten­tion and a host of other is­sues.

A Turk­ish court Fri­day con­victed Brun­son of hav­ing links to ter­ror­ism and sen­tenced him to just more than three years in pri­son, but re­leased the 50-year-old evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor be­cause he had al­ready spent nearly two years in de­ten­tion. An ear­lier charge of es­pi­onage was dropped.

Hours later, Brun­son was flown out of Tur­key, his home for more than two decades. He was taken to a U.S. mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in Land­stuhl, Ger­many, for a med­i­cal checkup.

“I love Je­sus. I love Tur­key,” an emo­tional Brun­son, who had main­tained his in­no­cence, told the court at Fri­day’s hear­ing.

Brun­son’s re­lease could ben­e­fit Tur­key by al­low­ing the gov­ern­ment to fo­cus on an es­ca­lat­ing diplo­matic cri­sis over Ja­mal Khashoggi, a Saudi con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post who has been miss­ing for more than a week and is feared dead af­ter en­ter­ing the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul. Turk­ish of­fi­cials sus­pect Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi gov­ern­ment, was killed in the con­sulate; Saudi of­fi­cials deny it.

Trump main­tained the two cases were not linked, say­ing Brun­son’s re­lease amid the Khashoggi in­ves­ti­ga­tion was “strict co­in­ci­dence.”

Tur­key may also hope the U.S. will now lift the tar­iffs on Turk­ish steel and alu­minum im­ports, a move that would in­ject con­fi­dence into an econ­omy rat­tled by high in­fla­tion and for­eign cur­rency debt.

But Brun­son’s re­lease doesn’t re­solve dis­agree­ments over U.S. sup­port for Kur­dish fighters in Syria, as well as a plan by Tur­key to buy Rus­sian sur­face-to-air mis­siles. Tur­key is also frus­trated by the re­fusal of the U.S. to ex­tra­dite Fethul­lah Gulen, a Penn­syl­va­nia-based Mus­lim cleric ac­cused by Tur­key of en­gi­neer­ing the failed coup.

Brun­son was ac­cused of com­mit­ting crimes on be­half of Gulen and Kur­dish mil­i­tants who have been fight­ing the Turk­ish state for decades. He faced up to 35 years in jail if con­victed of all the charges against him.

The pas­tor, who is orig­i­nally from Black Moun­tain, North Carolina, led a small con­gre­ga­tion in the Izmir Res­ur­rec­tion Church. He was im­pris­oned for nearly two years af­ter be­ing de­tained in Oc­to­ber 2016.

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