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A fist bump, then a rancorous call: How Trump’s deal to free an American pastor in Turkey fell apart

On July 25, Andrew Brunson, an American pastor detained on terrorism-related charges, was released from a prison in Turkey and placed under house arrest. (Video: Reuters)
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President Trump thought he had a deal.

His NATO meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month had ended with a smile, a fist-bump and what Trump thought was an agreement to free Andrew Brunson, the American pastor imprisoned in Turkey for the last two years on what the administration considered bogus terrorism charges.

The deal was a carom shot, personally sealed by Trump, to trade a Turkish citizen imprisoned on terrorism charges in Israel for Brunson’s release. But it apparently fell apart on Wednesday, when a Turkish court, rather than sending the pastor home, ordered that he be transferred to house arrest while his trial continues.

Thursday morning, after a rancorous phone call with Erdogan, Trump struck back. The United States “will impose large sanctions” on Turkey, he tweeted. “This innocent man of faith should be released immediately.”

Vice President Mike Pence warned Turkey on July 26 to free detained American Pastor Andrew Brunson or “be prepared to face the consequences." (Video: Reuters)

Vice President Pence chimed in, saying in a speech at a religious conference that Turkey must free Brunson now “or be prepared to face the consequences.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his counterpart in Ankara.

The Turks, according to a Trump adviser, had cheated by “upping the ante” for Brunson. While the exact Turkish terms are unknown, Ankara has a long list of complaints, including the U.S. failure to extradite the Turkish citizen it considers responsible for a failed 2016 coup attempt, the U.S. investigation of a Turkish state-run bank for violating Iran sanctions, and attempts by Congress to prevent delivery of F-35 fighter jets that Turkey has already purchased.

Several U.S. officials and other people familiar with the situation insisted that there had been no misunderstanding of the terms of the deal.

“Turkey missed a real opportunity. Pastor Brunson is not a bargaining chip,” said a White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity about what has quickly become a major diplomatic incident with potentially wide-ranging ramifications.

In addition to its NATO membership, Turkey is a key player in Syria and in the Middle East in general.

In a statement distributed on Friday to the news media, an unnamed senior Turkish official called reports of a deal between the United States and Turkey to exchange prisoners “completely baseless.”

There was no immediate response from Erdogan. His spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said the administration’s “threatening language” was “unacceptable.”  

“The United States must reconsider its approach and adopt a constructive position before inflicting further damage to its own interests and its alliance with Turkey,” he said in a statement.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was more blunt. “No one dictates to Turkey,” he tweeted. “We will never tolerate threats from anybody.” The government, he indicated, could not interfere with the courts and had to respect the “rule of law.”

Trump considers himself his own best negotiator with world leaders, and has boasted of his ability to size up the person across the table, forge a personal bond, and strike the best deal. He often saunters into phone calls and meetings with foreign presidents and prime ministers, paying little attention to history, protocol and a pile of briefing papers prepared for him by his foreign policy experts.

The outcome of his recent sit-downs with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin remain up in the air. But Erdogan — a NATO ally whom Trump singled out for praise as he criticized other alliance members at the recent summit in Brussels — has clearly been a disappointment.

The fast unraveling of the situation this week followed a notable improvement in U.S. relations with Turkey after several years of dissonance. At a meeting in Washington last month, Pompeo and Cavusoglu finalized an agreement on one of the most serious and long-running disagreements between the two countries — the withdrawal of U.S.-allied Kurdish forces from part of Syria’s border with Turkey. Turkey considers the Kurds, proxy forces in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State, to be terrorists.

Brunson, whose fate is of great importance to evangelical Christians who form a major part of the president’s political base, was at the top of Trump’s list during what was, to all appearances, a cordial meeting with Erdogan at the July 11-12 NATO summit.

A Christian missionary from North Carolina, Brunson, 50, had lived in Turkey for more than two decades when he was detained in October 2016. The indictment, based on evidence provided in part by three secret informants, accuses him of acting in coordination with the organization headed by alleged coup attempt mastermind Fethullah Gulen, a U.S. permanent resident living in Pennsylvania, as well as Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. It also accuses him of attempting to convert Kurds to Christianity.

The case quickly became a cause celebre in this country. Lawmakers last year who tried to insert a sanctions provision, tied to Brunson’s release, to the omnibus spending bill, were persuaded by the White House to let its diplomatic efforts succeed.

Optimism was high that Erdogan, after a reelection victory last month that increased presidential powers — and the need to improve Turkey’s faltering economy — would be more willing to move on the issue. In late June, he left visiting U.S. senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) with the impression that relations were improving.

On July 14, after traveling from the NATO gathering to his golf club in Scotland, Trump placed a call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, about what the Israeli leader later called “security and diplomatic issues arising from regional developments, chiefmost among them, of course, Syria and Iran,” according to Israeli media.

But the call also included a discussion of Turkey. Trump, according to a person familiar with the subsequent deal, asked his Israeli ally if he would release Ebru Ozkan, a 27-year-old Turkish woman who was detained in Israel on charges of acting as a smuggler for Hamas, the Palestinian group that the United States and Israel have labeled a terrorist organization.

Erdogan’s government had expressed anger over Ozkan’s June 11 arrest as she attempted to fly home from Israel’s international airport in Tel Aviv. But the case was apparently considered weak by the Israeli court, which last week ordered her transferred to house arrest over the objections of prosecutors.

On July 15, the day after Trump and Netanyahu spoke, Ozkan was deported from Israel. Speaking to reporters on her arrival in Istanbul, she thanked Erdogan, who “was kind enough to be very interested in my case,” she said. Israeli officials declined to comment on the arrangement.

On July 18, a Turkish court rejected appeals to release Brunson and set another court date for October. U.S. officials appeared taken aback, and Trump, on Twitter, called it a “total disgrace.” But less than a week later, on Wednesday, the court convened again to order that the pastor be released from prison and placed under house arrest.

The U.S. response was mixed. Pompeo, on Twitter, called it a “welcome” development, but added it was “not enough.”

Erdogan appeared to believe he was in the clear, telling Turkish media that Trump had told him, when they met in Brussels, that the F-35 deal would go through.

By Thursday morning, however, the administration’s apparent puzzlement had turned to rage.

The angry outbursts by both sides raised questions about how the impasse would be resolved — and whether there was any way left for Erdogan to release Brunson without seeming to cave in to American demands.

“Pence and Trump have left him no graceful exit,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish American political scientist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who said the feud amounted to the worst political crisis between Ankara and Washington in at least four decades.

But Gonul Tol, the director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that Erdogan could still let Brunson go without facing any real backlash.

Erdogan’s recent election victory had afforded him vast new powers and he “can pretty much do whatever he wants,” Tol said, including release Brunson. “He doesn’t even have to justify what he has done.”

Fahim reported from Istanbul.