Trump touts his dealmaking skills after meeting American pastor freed from Turkey

The Rev. Andrew Brunson prays with President Trump in the Oval Office after his return from Turkish prison. (Photo: Mike Theiler/Reuters)
The Rev. Andrew Brunson prays with President Trump in the Oval Office after his return from Turkish prison. (Photo: Mike Theiler/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — President Trump, welcoming an American clergyman on his return to the United States after a two-year imprisonment in Turkey, took credit for his release and blamed President Obama for not getting him out sooner.

“For Andrew, it’s been a very interesting day,” Trump told reporters who were called to the White House to witness the repatriation of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian from North Carolina. “From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours. That’s not bad.”

Brunson, who had been living and preaching in Turkey for more than two decades, was arrested in October 2016 on suspicion of involvement in a coup attempt against the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His case became a cause célèbre among American evangelicals, sparking tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO member, as the Trump administration maintained Brunson’s innocence and pushed for his freedom.

A Turkish court found Brunson guilty on Friday of charges that could have led to a sentence of up to 35 years but immediately released him for time served. Brunson was quickly flown to the U.S. on a government plane.

In the Oval Office on Saturday, Trump touted Brunson’s return as evidence of his strong handling of the cases of Americans detained abroad.

“We’ve been negotiating long and hard. We do not pay ransom in this country — at least any longer. We don’t pay ransom; otherwise, you have big problems and lots of things will happen, lots of bad things will happen. But I still — I want to thank President Erdogan,” Trump said.

Trump repeatedly said he had dealt with the situation better than his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, would have.

“It started in a different administration, and they were not going to work out anything, and we took it over. We inherited it and we have, I think at this moment, gotten 19 people out of various countries that were being held,” said Trump.

Trump cited the cases of three American detainees freed from North Korea in May and the case of Aya Hijazi, an American citizen who was released from Egypt in April 2017.

“Aya was, they said, a spy. She was sentenced to 25 years. They told President Obama, ‘We will not let her out under any circumstances.’ And they told me, ‘She’ll be in the Oval Office in 24 hours,’” Trump said.

In brief remarks, Brunson thanked the Trump administration for fighting “unusually” hard on his behalf. Brunson and his wife, Norine, also prayed over the president.

“Lord God, I ask that you pour out your holy spirit on President Trump. That you give him supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans that you have for this country and for him,” Brunson said.

“I just want to pray that the spirit of the Lord would rest on the president, that the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord,” Norine said.

Trump responded with a political inquiry.

“Thank you very much, Norine. Could I ask you one question? Who did you vote for?” he asked.

The Brunsons and the officials in the room laughed.

“I would like to say I sent in an absentee ballot from prison,” Brunson responded.

“It’s a little unfair. I knew the answer,” Trump said. “I would never do that to myself. That could be — that could be too tough.”

Trump was asked by reporters what he has done “differently” from previous presidents to free Americans held by foreign governments.

“Well, they’re tending not to take them. They are tending not to take them out of our administration and that’s good. I like that and I think I could tell you why, but I won’t,” Trump said, adding, “But they tend not to take them out of our administration, and you know what? It’s going to stay that way, OK?”

Trump was also asked about other Americans who are imprisoned in Turkey.

“As you speak, we are working on that,” Trump said. “And, by the way, other people that are in prisons in other countries other than Turkey, we have other people that have been there for many years. We’ve done very well. We actually have at least 18, and the 18 were people that they said would never, ever be freed. And, by the way, Pastor Brunson was one of them.”

Brunson, who thanked the administration for fighting “unusually” hard on his behalf, also addressed the other Americans in Turkish custody.

“I would like to say something. Someone asked before about other American prisoners in Turkey, and I know that from dealing with the consulate there … they weren’t only engaging for me, that they were engaging for everyone there,” Brunson said.

Brunson’s release occurred as another case involving Turkey was making headlines. Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. permanent resident and Washington Post contributor who has been critical of the government of Saudi Arabia, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to complete some paperwork. The Turkish government, which has an extremely tense relationship with Saudi Arabia, said it has evidence that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate.

Saudi Arabia has insisted that Khashoggi left the building.

When asked whether he believed that Turkey’s decision to release Brunson was related to the Khashoggi case, Trump said it was “a strict coincidence.”

“I’ve heard a couple of people say, well, that’s pretty tricky, could there be anything to it? No … it’s a total coincidence. It’s interesting. A lot of things happening in a certain part of the world,” Trump said.

The Trump administration’s efforts to press for Brunson’s freedom included levying sanctions on Turkish officials. Erdogan, who has said the decision to release Brunson was “an impartial decision” made by an independent court, had previously indicated that the pastor would be freed if the U.S. turned over Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government has blamed Gulen’s supporters for the attempted coup in which Brunson was implicated. Gulen has denied any role in the failed coup.

Trump has denied that there was any “deal” with Turkey and characterized Brunson’s release as an independent gesture. He reiterated this on Saturday when he was asked what the future of U.S. sanctions on Turkey would be.

“Well, we were very tough on Turkey and we’ll take a look. There was absolutely no deal made. Frankly, the only deal, if you could call it a deal, is a psychological one,” Trump said. “We feel much different about Turkey today than we did yesterday, and I think we have a chance of really becoming much closer to Turkey and maybe even having a very, very good relationship.”

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