United States President Donald Trump welcomed American pastor Andrew Brunson to the Oval Office, celebrating his release from nearly two years of confinement in Turkey that had sparked a diplomatic row with a key ally and outcry from US evangelical groups.
- Andrew Brunson’s return to the United States comes at a good time for US President Donald Trump
- It will likely be popular with evangelical Christian voters ahead of the November mid-term election
- Turkey will also be hoping the release proves beneficial, helping ease tariffs on aluminium and steel
Mr 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 Mr Trump for working to secure his freedom and then led his family in prayer for the President.
“You really fought for us,” he told Mr Trump.
“From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours, that’s not bad,” Mr Trump said.
Administration officials cast the pastor’s release as vindication of Mr Trump’s hard-nosed negotiating stance, saying Turkey tried to set terms for Mr Brunson’s release, but Mr Trump was insistent on Mr Brunson’s release without conditions.
Mr Trump maintained there was no deal for Brunson’s freedom, but the President dangled the prospect of better relations between the US and its NATO ally.
“We do not pay ransom in this country,” Trump said.
Where previous administrations kept negotiations over US prisoners held abroad close to the vest, Mr Trump has elevated them to causes celebres, striking a tough line with allies and foes alike.
Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release could prove a boost to Mr Trump’s hopes in November’s mid-term election. (AP Photo: Emre Tazegul)
Trump hopes for mid-term boost, Turkey for eased tariffs
Trump thanked Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had resisted the demands of Mr Trump and other high-level US officials for Mr Brunson’s release.
Donald Trump tweet: “There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don’t make deals for hostages. There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!”
Mr Erdogan had insisted that his country’s courts are independent, though he previously had suggested a possible swap for the American pastor.
The US had repeatedly called for Mr Brunson’s release and, this year, sanctioned two Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on steel and aluminium imports citing in part Brunson’s plight.
Mr Trump said the US greatly appreciated Mr Brunson’s release and said the move “will lead to good, perhaps great, relations” between the US and fellow NATO ally Turkey, and said the White House would “take a look” at the sanctions.
Mr Erdogan said he hoped the two countries will continue to cooperate “as it befits two allies”.
Turkey may also hope the US will now lift the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports, a move that would inject confidence into an economy rattled by high inflation and foreign currency debt.
The Turkish President also called for joint efforts against terrorism, and he listed the Islamic State group, Kurdish militants and the network of a US-based Muslim cleric whom Turkey blames for a failed coup in 2016.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he hoped the relationship would improve between the countries. (AP )
Mr Brunson’s homecoming amounts to a diplomatic high note for the US President, who is counting on the support of evangelical Christians for Republican candidates in the November 6 midterm election.
Thousands of Mr Trump’s supporters cheered at a Friday-night rally in Ohio when he informed them that Mr Brunson was once again a free man.
Mr Trump asked Mr 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,” the pastor quipped, before praying that God grant Mr Trump “supernatural wisdom”.
Evangelical voters overwhelmingly voted for Mr Trump despite discomfort with his personal shortcomings, in large part because he pledged to champion their causes, from defending persecuted Christians overseas to appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
In the space of seven days, less than a month from the midterm elections, Mr Trump delivered on both fronts.
Mr Brunson’s case has been championed by prominent evangelical leaders such as Tony Perkins, as well as Vice President Mike Pence.