There was only one way the State Department’s religious freedom ministerial could have ended on a higher note — and that’s if U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson had been freed. Clearly, that was the administration’s hope, after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations and haggling across several agencies of government. And while the news that Pastor Brunson had been moved from his dank prison cell to house arrest was some comfort, the president and his vice president agreed: it was not enough.
After what’s been described as a “rancorous” phone call with Turkish President Erdogan, Donald Trump unleashed a stern warning on Twitter — release the American or heavy sanctions are next. Vice President Mike Pence echoed that message at yesterday’s ministerial on religious freedom in the presence of leaders from 84 countries. Twenty-four hours later, Brunson remains in custody and the wheels of retribution are starting to churn. Already, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) threatens to take away one valuable piece of the Turkish arsenal: 100 F-35 fighter jets, which Lockheed produced to sell to our NATO ally. Now, that deal seems at least temporarily on hold — thanks to conference language that would stop the transfer.
Then, there was the bipartisan letter of 66 senators to President Erdogan in April, calling on him to free Brunson or pay the price in this year’s State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs spending bill. As part of the legislation, both parties would move ahead with restrictions on everything from visas for Turkish officials to a restriction on funds for the sale of certain defense articles to the Turkish military. As if that weren’t enough, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking steps to crackdown on loans from international financial institutions to Turkey, which would put a huge dent in the country’s already shaky financial situation.
From the White House to the administration and Congress, every lever of government is sending an unequivocal message that it’s time to let Pastor Brunson go. Secretary Mike Pompeo tweeted today that he’s been in constant contact with leaders across the Turkish government. “I spoke yesterday with Turkey’s Foreign Minister @MevlutCavusoglu and underscored that it is well past time for this innocent Pastor Andrew Brunson to come home.” Let’s hope Turkey is listening — or it could be a painful lesson in President Trump’s resolve.
To hear more about the Trump administration’s commitment to religious freedom, listen to my interview with Mick Mulvaney, the White House Director of the Office of Budget and Management. And, for the latest on Pastor Brunson’s case, don’t miss my interview with Fox News earlier today.
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