President Donald Trump told Bloomberg reporters Thursday that he was “very disappointed” in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for not yet releasing American pastor Andrew Brunson from his prolonged imprisonment on false charges.
Brunson was arrested in late 2016 for allegedly working as a spy for Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group, despite spending decades in Turkey preaching the gospel with no affiliation to Muslim or atheist Marxist groups. Washington has rejected Turkish prosecutors’ claims and sanctioned Ankara for its persistence in keeping Brunson behind bars.
Asked about the Brunson case, Trump told Bloomberg, “I’m disappointed in him,” referring to Erdoğan. “I got somebody back for him. I’m very disappointed in him, but we’ll see how it all works out.”
Bloomberg notes that, before commenting, the president initially refused to because the case was “too dear to my heart.”
The “somebody” that Trump says he retrieved for Erdoğan is believed to be Ebru Ozkan, a Turkish citizen arrested in Israel on charges of running a money laundering scheme to fund the terrorist organization Hamas. Israel recently agreed to release Ozkan.
Erdoğan has made clear repeatedly, however, that Brunson is being held as a hostage to secure the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Gulen lives in Pennsylvania, where he runs his Hizmet movement, which runs a global network of charter schools.
“We have given you all the documents necessary [for the extradition of Gülen]. But they say, ‘give us the pastor,'” Erdoğan said in September. “You have another pastor in your hands. Give us that pastor and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one.”
Erdoğan did not exhibit any concern with freeing Brunson in exchange for Gulen, undermining the argument prosecutors are making that Brunson represents too great a danger to Turkish society to let him go.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has taken on Brunson’s case, filed a motion this week at the UN Human Rights Council requesting international action to free Brunson.
“The President is committed to bringing Pastor Andrew home to his family. But we need the full-force of the global community bearing down on Turkey’s President Erdoğan to force him to honor the Turkish and international laws detailed in our submission and return Pastor Andrew home to America,” the ACLJ said in a statement published Thursday, noting that Brunson has been in custody for “close to 700 days” and only moved into house arrest after months of complaints that his health had deteriorated significantly while in prison.
Turkey’s government appears little interested in letting Brunson go, instead condemning Washington for sanctions and tariffs placed on the country in retaliation for Brunson’s continued arrest. In an interview with the Chinese government propaganda outlet Global Times, Turkish ambassador to China Abdulkadir Emin Onen said that Turkey continues to hold Brunson in custody because he “faces terrorism-related charges” and accused Washington of a “clear attack on the Turkish economy,” citing tweets about the collapse of the value of the Turkish lira by President Trump.
“Unfortunately, President Donald Trump ramped up his attack on Turkey by doubling US tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel imports. Like China’s response to the trade war in retaliation to US tariffs, Turkey also increased tariffs on several US products, including alcohol, tobacco and cars,” Onen claimed.
“We expect immediate action from US authorities to extradite Fettullah Gulen from US soil who is the mastermind of FETÖ to face trial in Turkey and to prevent its activities, which are often hidden under the shield of charity organizations in the US,” the ambassador concluded.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made similar remarks Friday, attempting to tie the Brunson case into a greater narrative that the Trump administration is “pressurizing all its allies lately.”
“The U.S. president does not only have problems with Turkey, but also he has problems with every EU member country,” Çavuşoğlu complained.
Turkish Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak also issued a statement Friday, expressing optimism in the face of the dire state of the Turkish economy rather than attacking the United States outright.
“We will win this economic war that was initiated against Turkey in the end. Today, we have given a strong message of unity to the world with the image we have portrayed here,” Albayrak said, according to pro-Erdoğan Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak. “We know very well what steps we need to take. In this process, no one should doubt the strong Turkish economy we desire with the right policies and practices. We have launched a major process of change in the economy for this.”