Trump Administration Finds Historic Success Rescuing American Hostages

Rescued Americans speak to Trump's efforts in returning them home safely

President Donald Trump and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien / Getty Images
December 23, 2020

Bryan Nerren spent seven months detained in an Indian prison, unsure if or when he would see his family again. 

"The experience was horrific, very difficult," said Nerren. "I was put in a cage, treated like the worst criminal in India."

For 18 years, the small-town pastor from Shelbyville, Tenn., traveled to India and Nepal to spread the Gospel, cultivating a network of Christian communities across Southeast Asia. In 2019, he had amassed $40,000 for educational aid and anti-poverty efforts in Nepal. After a series of stops in India, government agents detained the pastor and his associates. They faced an eight-hour interrogation of "TV-horror quality" that focused on their faith. After lengthy negotiations, Nerren's associates were released, but the pastor faced a seven-year prison sentence for smuggling and conversionism. 

Then the White House stepped in. A full-court press from President Donald Trump and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien secured Nerren's freedom after negotiating with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Nerren returned home to his family in May. 

"I am clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that had Donald Trump not been the president, I'd still be in India," Nerren told the Washington Free Beacon.

The Trump administration has brought home dozens of Americans trapped overseas. The pace has accelerated since August when the White House announced that at least 50 hostages had been rescued from 22 countries. Since then, even more Americans have returned safely from hostile foreign captivity in Belarus, Yemen, and Nigeria, among other countries.

Officials and experts familiar with the matter call Trump's approach to international hostage-taking historic in scope after previous administrations treated the issue as a more peripheral concern. Former hostage Josh Holt spoke to the Free Beacon about this contrast. Venezuelan agents accused the Utah resident of attempting to destabilize the Maduro regime when he entered the country to retrieve his wife and her two daughters in 2016.

"They didn't really do anything to help us out," Holt said of the Obama administration. "They didn't really respond to any of the letters sent by my parents or the senators or congresspeople here in Utah."

Holt spent nearly two years in prison, deprived of a toothbrush and toilet paper. Holt says he saw a much more deliberate effort to get him and his family home after Trump took office. He appeared at the 2020 Republican National Convention alongside Trump in a video segment discussing the White House's success in bringing home detained Americans.

"It wasn't really until the RNC that just happened that I was able to go back again and talk to Ambassador Robert O'Brien and President Trump and I was able to fully understand the type of effort that they put into getting people abroad back home," Holt said.

Experts observed a broad policy push for bringing hostages home, led by Trump, O'Brien, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens.

"Overall, I think the president has placed a significant emphasis on this issue," Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior vice president Jonathan Schanzer told the Free Beacon. "Bringing home Americans that are being held by rogue states or terrorist groups is an unmitigated good." 

Schanzer also noted that at least two cases—Aya Hijazi in Egypt and Andrew Brunson in Turkey—demonstrated the benefits of personal relationships between senior leaders in Washington and foreign strongmen. Those relationships gave the Trump administration leverage, according to a senior State Department official.

"We've professionalized what we're doing, we've figured out the tools," the official told the Free Beacon. "President Trump has made all the difference." 

A major milestone in the process of expanding hostage retrieval operations has also been the expansion and consolidation of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, a position created in 2015. O'Brien led the newly created office before his appointment to the National Security Council.

"[Trump] and Secretary Pompeo have been so on board that it allows us to institutionalize this," the State Department official told the Free Beacon.

Part of the office's increased support comes from Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) introduced the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act last year, which affirms and expands on State Department protocol in hostage situations. The act, which Congress passed on Monday, also brings congressional approval to the office of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, which President Obama only established by executive order.

"The U.S. government should remain committed to bringing American hostages home," a Rubio spokesman told the Free Beacon. "We must have the tools necessary in order to achieve this and reunite them with their families. Senator Rubio was proud to co-sponsor this bipartisan bill, which passed in the Senate earlier this year, and looks forward to its enactment." 

House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R., Texas) stressed the need for congressional support on the issue. McCaul has been a strong voice in bringing home Trevor Reed, an ex-Marine detained in Russia on trumped-up charges.

"Bringing home wrongfully detained Americans has been a top priority of this administration and, thankfully, they have been successful in many cases," McCaul said. "I have personally met with families whose loved ones are being held as political prisoners, and I cannot imagine the pain they endure on a daily basis. We must continue our efforts to bring every American who is unjustly detained safely home to be with their families."  

Despite the White House's and Congress's best efforts, Schanzer warned that the Biden administration could reverse Trump's progress in bringing Americans home. It may require a similar level of personal commitment from senior levels of Joe Biden's team to replicate Trump's success.

"A lot of that [success] really had to do with the rapport of top leadership in the United States with top leadership abroad," Schanzer told the Free Beacon. "In some ways, we really might look for how the Biden administration at the top level engages or establishes ties with the countries where we have hostage concerns." 

Nerren echoed Schanzer's concerns, citing Biden and his advisers' track record with hostage negotiations during the Obama administration.

"They have a history of talking about everything, and doing absolutely nothing," Nerren said. "They're not going to use any political capital to make sure that American citizenship matters. We know exactly what they did for eight years."