White House: U.S. Will Pay ‘Nothing’ for Pastor’s Release

U.S.-Turkey talks stall as Trump rejects sanctions relief

Pastor Andrew Brunson / Getty Images

Key advocates pressing Turkey for the release of a U.S. pastor and several other U.S. diplomats are praising the Trump administration for refusing to negotiate with Ankara about U.S. sanctions relief even as they acknowledge an impasse in the efforts to win the Americans' freedom.

Trump administration officials on Monday confirmed that they rejected an offer from Turkey to release Pastor Andrew Brunson and other U.S. citizens held on disputed terrorism charges in exchange for the U.S. government backing away from an investigation into a major Turkish bank, which the U.S. has accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Jay Sekulow is an attorney who serves as the chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law & Justice, or ACLJ, and also serves as a member of President Trump's personal legal team. Sekulow has been an outspoken advocate for Brunson's swift return but praised Trump over the weekend for "refusing to pay a ransom to Turkey" for the pastor's release.

"In diplomacy, you sometimes hit a bump in the road," he tweeted. "Clearly we have hit such a bump. While I remain hopeful for the expeditious release of #PastorAndrew, let me be clear that we fully support the President's action in refusing to pay a ransom to Turkey, a NATO ally, for the release of an innocent man."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) late last week met with the Turkish ambassador to the United States regarding Brunson in what he said was a "candid and productive meeting."

Graham has backed Trump's decision to sanction Turkey over Brunson's jailing, predicting that the U.S. "is not going to have a normal relationship with Turkey until they let Pastor Brunson out."

The crisis involving the pastor, now under house arrest in Turkey, is exacerbating the worst rift between the two NATO allies in decades. Over the last week, Turkish courts have rejected appeals by Brunson in the terrorism cases brought against him. The White House has refused to engage in any negotiations over economic disputes until Brunson is freed, setting up a new round of sanctions against Ankara that could be imposed as early as this week.

The U.S. embassy in Ankara also confirmed Monday that it is investigating an incident in which an unidentified gunman fired shots at the embassy earlier in the day, striking a guard booth but causing no injuries.

"U.S. and Turkish officials at the most senior levels have discussed Pastor Brunson's release for some time now," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Monday. "Unfortunately, those talks have not yielded satisfactory results. Still, diplomacy continues."

Sanders also clearly stated that the Trump administration would not engage in economic negotiations involving Brunson's release.

"The president was clear when he said on Thursday, ‘We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man,'" she said.

The comments come after Trump on Friday tweeted that the terrorism charges against Brunson are "phony," and pledged that "we are not going to take it sitting down." Turkey has been holding the 50-year-old pastor for two years on charges that he has ties to the Fethullah Gulen Movement, which Erdogan blames for a failed coup attempt against him in 2016.

"They made up this phony charge that he is a spy, and he is not a spy," Trump told reporters.

Vice President Pence, who has spoken out repeatedly about Brunson's plight, last week pointedly warned Turkey "not to test @POTUS Trump's resolve to see Americans who are wrongfully imprisoned in foreign lands returned to the United States."

"@POTUS and I continue to stand firm until Pastor Brunson is released and returned to his family, friends and church in the USA," he tweeted.

Meanwhile, the Turkish lira remained at record lows Monday in reaction to the ongoing trade war between Washington and Ankara and the impasse over Brunson and the other U.S. citizens. The lira has dropped 42 percent so far this year in reaction to Turkey's strained relations with the United States and Erdogan's economic policies and debt accumulation. The U.S. has recently imposed sanctions on two Turkish officials and has doubled steel and aluminum tariffs.

On Sunday night the Wall Street Journal reported that Turkey had proposed releasing Brunson and other U.S. citizens if the Trump administration would drop an investigation into Halkbank, which is bracing for serious fines for alleged violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran.