An American pastor, just after being freed by Turkey following two years in detention, knelt next to the U.S. president in the Oval Office on Saturday afternoon and prayed for Donald Trump to be given “supernatural wisdom.”
Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Christian, also expressed his appreciation for the strong pressure by the U.S. government on Turkey to win his release.
“We especially want to thank the administration,” Brunson said, with his family present. “You really fought for us.”
“From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours. That’s not bad,” Trump said.
Thanks to Erdogan
Trump also thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Brunson’s freedom, saying no ransom was paid.
Asked by VOA on Friday what had led to Brunson’s release, Trump at Cincinnati’s municipal airport replied: “We spoke to Turkey, and he went through a system and we got him out. We’ve been trying to get him out for a long time.”
The freeing of Brunson marked the end of a bitter diplomatic dispute between Washington and Ankara. Brunson was facing 35 years in jail if he had been convicted on terrorism and espionage charges, allegations Washington called baseless.
Trump, in the Oval Office, said the resolution of the was a “tremendous step” in U.S.-Turkish relations.
Erdogan, in a Saturday tweet addressed to Trump, said the Turkish judiciary had taken an independent decision and hoped that cooperation with the United States would continue.
On Friday, during the fourth day of hearings on Brunson’s case, three prosecution witnesses recanted earlier testimony. One said he didn’t know who Brunson was, while others claimed the court had misunderstood their previous statements.
The Turkish court then found Brunson guilty but sentenced him to only three years and one month in jail. The pastor had already served two years in pre-trial detention, so he was freed for time served.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a tweet on Friday, said the Trump administration would continue to work to bring other “wrongfully imprisoned” Americans home.
The U.S. military flew Brunson to Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday for a medical evaluation before he was flown to the United States.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell greeted Brunson at the airbase. The ambassador posted a photograph on Twitter of Brunson kissing an American flag.
The pastor’s case had become the focal point of a crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations. Trump, partly in retaliation for Brunson’s prosecution, slapped Turkey with trade tariffs in August. The action led to the collapse of Turkey’s currency.
Brunson had lived in Turkey since the 1990s, running an evangelical church. He belongs to the same church as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo and had become a focal point of concern for Trump’s evangelical voting base.
“The release of Brunson is the essence for Turkish-U.S. relations to get back on track,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen.
Observers said the pastor’s release just before November’s midterm elections also was a big win for Trump and suggested the door was now open to resolving the many issues poisoning ties between the two NATO partners.
The hope is that with Brunson’s release, “there will be a domino effect of positive progress in Turkish-U.S. relations,” said political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.
Some analysts suggested the resolution of the Brunson controversy would create an atmosphere more conducive to compromises. But analyst Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress, a U.S. research group, suggested in a VOA interview there was peril in the U.S.-Turkey dynamic that resulted in Brunson’s release.
“The U.S. sees that the stick approach worked, that a pressure campaign worked,” Hoffman said. “They say pressure got their guy out of prison, and they’ll be tempted to go back to that approach.”
Hoffman predicted that this could lead to danger for the relationship because Erdogan will feel too much pressure, lash out and refuse to back down, leading to “an even deeper crisis.”
VOA’s Wayne Lee, Fern Robinson and Dorian Jones contributed to this report.