Trump hints about next hostage release: American pastor jailed in Turkey is ‘a totally innocent man’

DCNFChuck Ross, DCNF

An American pastor facing trial in Turkey on allegations of aiding terrorist groups is “a totally innocent man,” President Donald Trump said Saturday.

“We have Pastor [Andrew] Brunson, a wonderful Christian pastor, and he’s right now in Turkey. He’s been there a long time. And they say he’s a spy, but he’s not a spy,” Trump said during a meeting in the Oval Office.

Trump made the remarks — his most direct to date about Brunson — during a meeting to celebrate the release of Joshua Holt, a Utah man who was jailed in Venezuela in 2016 after being accused of being a CIA spy. Holt, 26, had traveled to Venezuela to marry a woman he met online.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch worked for two years to secure Holt’s release.

Trump, who secured the release of three American hostages in North Korea earlier this month, said his administration is also fighting hard for Brunson, who the Turkish government has also accused of being a CIA spy.

“Pastor Brunson — I hope you can hear us — we’ll be helping you at some point. We’ve been working on it for a while. He’s been there a long time, and he’s a totally innocent man,” Trump said.

“We’re going to all work, and we’ve been working for his release. He’s having a hard time. There’s a trial going on, but the trial is not so much of a trial. And we’re talking to the folks in Turkey about doing something about it,” the president added.

Brunson, a North Carolina native, is currently awaiting trial on bogus charges that he aided Kurdish groups as well as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in the U.S.

Gulen was behind a failed July 15, 2016, coup attempt against the Turkish government, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian president, claims.  He has pressed the Obama and Trump administrations to return Gulen, but American authorities have said they have yet to see evidence showing the imam was involved in the failed putsch.

Brunson is being held as leverage to obtain Gulen’s extradition, Erdogan has publicly stated.

“The U.S. should look at the steps it has taken and comply with the extradition treaty if it wants American Pastor Brunson,” Erdogan said in an interview with a Turkish television outlet.

Brunson was arrested along with his wife in October 2016 in Izmir, Turkey, where the couple operated a small Christian church.

Turkish authorities refused for months to reveal details of the case against Brunson, who had lived in Turkey for 23 years when he was arrested. A secret witness had evidence Brunson helped Kurdish groups and groups that support Gulen, Turkish authorities have claimed.

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers for the Russia investigation, is also representing Brunson.

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