By Julia Harte and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Saturday the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson after two years in Turkish custody was a “tremendous step” toward improved relations with Turkey, but he denied cutting a deal with Ankara.
“The only deal, if you could call it a deal, is a psychological one. We feel much differently about Turkey today than we did yesterday, and I think we have a chance of really becoming much closer to Turkey,” Trump told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Brunson.
A Turkish court on Friday sentenced Brunson, who had been charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, to more than three years in prison but said he would not serve any further time because he had already been detained since October 2016.
The pastor’s release could signal a thaw in relations between the two NATO allies, which worsened in August after a deal to free Brunson fell apart and Trump authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey, helping drive the lira currency down against the dollar.
Trump did not pledge to lift the sanctions but said he welcomed an end to the “harsh relationship” the countries had over the past two months.
In front of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, U.S. lawmakers and Brunson’s family, the pastor knelt beside Trump on the floor of the Oval Office, placed a hand on his shoulder, and prayed for God to give him “supernatural wisdom.”
Trump also thanked President Tayyip Erdogan at Saturday’s meeting for helping secure Brunson’s release, despite a curt Twitter post from the Turkish leader earlier on Saturday repeating that Brunson’s release was a court’s decision to make, not his.
“Dear Mr. President, as I always pointed out, the Turkish judiciary reached its decision independently,” Erdogan wrote on his Twitter account. “I hope that the United States and Turkey will continue their cooperation as the allies that they are, and fight together against terrorist groups.”
Trump said Brunson’s release “wasn’t easy” for Erdogan.
In response to a question, Trump said the administration is actively working on the status of other imprisoned Americans and government employees in Turkey. “We are working very hard,” he said.
Senator Thom Tillis, who was at the White House Saturday, previously criticized Turkey for continuing to detain “multiple other U.S. citizens, as well as several Turkish staff of the U.S. diplomatic mission, on scant evidence under the state of emergency.”
Brunson said that U.S. State Department personnel in Turkey are working on behalf of other American prisoners currently in custody. “They were involved very much in advocating for the other prisoners,” Brunson said.
(Reporting by Julia Harte, Timothy Gardner, Roberta Rampton and David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and Marguerita Choy)