President Donald Trump welcomes home Pastor Andrew Brunson, denies link to Saudi case of disappeared journalist

US President Donald Trump (right) meets with Pastor Andrew Brunson in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct 13, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump on Saturday (Oct 13) welcomed home an American pastor freed by Turkey and said the release would improve relations with Ankara, but he denied any connection to the dispute between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

With television cameras on hand to record the event, Mr Trump invited Pastor Andrew Brunson to the Oval Office roughly an hour after he had landed back in the United States.

In an emotional moment, Pastor Brunson asked if he could pray for Mr Trump, then knelt next to him and asked God to give the president "supernatural wisdom".

Paster Brunson's sudden release after two years in detention came as the Turkish government was seeking help from Mr Trump in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia over the disappearance and apparent murder of Mr Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and critic of the royal family.

Mr Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but never emerged, and Turkish officials said he was killed and dismembered with a bone saw.

Turkey is looking for the United States to back it up in forcing Saudi Arabia to account for Mr Khashoggi's fate, but on Saturday, Mr Trump insisted that Pastor Brunson's release was not related.

"The timing is a strict coincidence," Mr Trump told reporters. "It really is."

Pastor Brunson's case had become a cause célèbre among religious conservatives, and Mr Trump eagerly embraced it. He credited the pressure he had put on Turkey for Pastor Brunson's release but said he had agreed to no deal.

"The only deal, if you could call it a deal, is a psychological one," he said. "We feel much differently about Turkey today than we did yesterday."

That may be exactly what Turkey wanted, given the clash over Mr Khashoggi, but Mr Trump made clear once again that he had no immediate or specific plans to take action against Saudi Arabia.

He again rejected the idea of cancelling or postponing arms sales on the grounds that it would cost US businesses money and jobs, and he made no move to cancel Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's coming trip to Saudi Arabia for an investment conference even though several US businesses are pulling out.

In an interview with 60 Minutes to be aired on CBS on Sunday, Mr Trump said "there will be severe punishment" if Saudi Arabia is found to have ordered the killing of Mr Khashoggi, but neither in the interview nor in his comments to reporters on Saturday did he suggest what such punishment would look like.

Instead, he extolled the virtues of an arms sales deal he cut with Saudi Arabia during a visit last year.

"I worked very hard to get the order for the military," he said. "If they don't buy it from us, they're going to buy it from Russia or they're going to buy it from China or they're going to buy it from somebody else."

Cancelling the sales, he said, "I actually think we would be punishing ourselves if we did that."

Mr Trump said that he had received a letter from Mr Khashoggi's fiancee, Ms Hatice Cengiz, and that he had invited her to meet him in the White House.

He said that he planned to call King Salman of Saudi Arabia later on Saturday or Sunday to ask him about Mr Khashoggi's disappearance.

He said he had not heard tapes that purportedly capture Mr Khashoggi being tortured and murdered, but acknowledged, as he has in recent days, that it seemed likely that he was dead.

"At this point, it's looking like he perhaps won't be or isn't around, and that's very sad," Mr Trump said. "I think we would have known by now."

Saudi Arabia once again denied on Saturday any involvement in Mr Khashoggi's disappearance. The interior minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, said in a statement that "what has been circulating in terms of supposed orders to kill Jamal are outright lies and baseless allegations against the kingdom's government, which is committed to its principles, rules and traditions and is in compliance with international laws and conventions".

Mr Brunson's case generated pressure on Mr Trump from religious conservative leaders, and the President, Vice-President Mike Pence and members of Congress from both parties took it up.

The President imposed sanctions on Turkey and said on Saturday that he had spoken about the case with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "at least once a day".

An evangelical pastor who ran the small Resurrection Church in Izmir, Mr Brunson, 50, and his wife, Norine, lived in Turkey for two dozen years.

He was arrested in October 2016, accused of spying and aiding terrorists and sentenced to three years, one month and 15 days in prison. He was released into house arrest in July and a Turkish judge last Friday reduced his sentence to time served, after which Mr Brunson was quickly flown out of the country.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey stressed on Saturday that the release was authorised by the courts, not the government.

"Honorable President @realDonaldTrump, as I have always emphasised, the Turkish judiciary has given its decision independently," he wrote in Turkish on Twitter. "I hope that Turkey and USA will continue the cooperation worthy of two allies."

The reaction in Turkey to the release was otherwise muted. The government played down the event, a sign of its discomfort since Mr Brunson had long been vilified by the Turkish news media as a terrorist and a spy.

Yet the anti-American, nationalist posture that has been increasingly adopted by the Turkish government, and by Mr Erdogan himself, since a failed coup in 2016, will not be easily reversed.

"Never come back again!" the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak screamed in a headline on Saturday after Mr Brunson left the country.

Mr Erdogan's coalition partner, Mr Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, accused the United States of using blackmail to win Mr Brunson's release and said the decision had "disturbed the national conscience".

"Pastor Brunson has been released after a dark, unacceptable process to which everyone with a conscience objects," he said in a statement to the Turkish news media.

He called on the United States to hand over Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been blamed by Turkey for orchestrating the coup attempt two years ago from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, or to extradite Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker imprisoned in May for conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran.

"The moment Pastor Brunson departs for USA, those whose extradition is morally and legally obligatory must be sent to our country," Mr Bahceli said.

Appearing in the Oval Office in a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, Mr Brunson appeared healthy and in good spirits. He expressed no bitterness and thanked Mr Trump and other US officials for their support.

"We do love Turkey," he said. "We were there for 25 years and we love the Turkish people."

Asked if he would stay in the United States, he said: "For a time. We don't know what's ahead of us." Mr Brunson asked the President if he could pray for him and Mr Trump agreed.

Mr Brunson then knelt next to the President and put his hand on Mr Trump's shoulder, closed his eyes and looked down. "I ask that you give him wisdom to lead this country into righteousness," Mr Brunson prayed.

Mrs Brunson then added a prayer of her own for the President. Mr Trump thanked them both and then addressed Mrs Brunson. "Can I ask you one question?" he said. "Who did you vote for?" She indicated that she had voted for him.

"I knew the answer," he said with a smile.

Mr Brunson added, "I sent in an absentee ballot from prison."

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