President Trump on Wednesday made good on a threat to impose sanctions on Turkey over the government's continued detention of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. Protestant preacher jailed two years ago on charges related to a failed military coup.
“The Turkish government refused to release Pastor Brunson after numerous conversations between President Trump and President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, and my conversations with Foreign Minister [Mevlut] Cavusoglu,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in a statement. “President Trump concluded that these sanctions are the appropriate action.”
Pompeo’s remarks came during a brief stop here en route to Singapore for a meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations.
At the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration had “seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong, and we believe he is a victim of unfair and unjust detention by the government of Turkey.”
In a statement, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. should reverse what it called a “wrongful decision.”
The Turkish government would respond “without delay to this aggressive attitude which serves no purpose," the Foreign Ministry said.
The sanctions reflect a significant ratcheting up of tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO ally and crucial player in the Mideast with which the administration has had increasingly testy relations.
Brunson, a North Carolina resident, has spent nearly 21 months in a Turkish jail on charges that his supporters contend are fabricated. Last week, under U.S. pressure, he was released to house arrest, but on Tuesday, a Turkish court refused to release him pending further proceedings scheduled for October.
Brunson had worked in Turkey for two decades when he was swept up in mass arrests after members of the Turkish military attempted to oust Erdogan’s government in 2016. Tens of thousands of teachers, politicians, police officers, journalists and others were arrested or fired in retaliation for the failed coup.
Turkish authorities accuse Brunson of helping to foment opposition to Erdogan that led to the attempted coup and of showing support for Kurdish rebels whom the government considers to be terrorists. He would face 35 years in prison if convicted.
Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic government blames the failed coup on a Turkish Muslim cleric who has been living in exile in Pennsylvania since the 1990s. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, has denied involvement in the attempted takeover, but the Turkish government has demanded that the U.S. send him to Turkey for trial.
Brunson’s plight has attracted considerable attention from evangelical Christian leaders, an important political constituency for Trump.
The pastor is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a conservative Florida-based group that encompasses hundreds of churches across the United States. Pompeo’s hometown church in Kansas is also affiliated with the group.
Vice President Mike Pence, also an evangelical Christian, has spoken out on the pastor’s behalf as well. Pence highlighted Brunson’s case at a recent State Department conference on religious freedom.
“Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now,” Pence said, addressing Erdogan, “or be prepared to face the consequences.”
Further deepening the administration’s connections to the case, one of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, is head of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has lobbied on Brunson’s behalf.
The sanctions levied by the Treasury Department target two senior Turkish officials whom the administration accuses of being directly responsible for Brunson's arrest and detention — Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.
Under the sanctions, any assets the two officials might have in the U.S. will be frozen, and American businesses and individuals are barred from having financial transactions with them.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters traveling with Pompeo that the administration still hoped to pursue a diplomatic solution. But the administration's patience clearly seems to be wearing thin.
The “unjust detention” of Brunson, other U.S. citizens and at least three U.S. Embassy employees with Turkish citizenship must end and they must be allowed to go home, Nauert said.
“Turkey knows our position well," she said. "This has gone on far too long.”
Pompeo most recently telephoned his Turkish counterpart while on the flight. The two will also meet on the margins of the ASEAN conference.
In announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said that “Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable.”
“President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately,” Mnuchin said.