ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday pushed back at President Trump’s threat to impose sanctions on Turkey for its nearly two-year detention of an American pastor, saying his government would stand firm and the United States risked losing a “strong and sincere partner.”
Erdogan, speaking to reporters during a visit to South Africa, also confirmed a report in The Washington Post that Trump had intervened to help secure the release of a Turkish citizen held by Israel on terrorism charges. But he denied that Turkey had offered to release the pastor, Andrew Brunson, in exchange for Trump’s intervention. “That type of negotiation didn’t happen,” Erdogan said.
The remarks were Erdogan’s first public response to an angry message Trump posted on Twitter on Thursday, warning he would levy “large sanctions” against Turkey over the imprisonment of Brunson, who has been accused by Turkish authorities of supporting terrorist groups. U.S. officials say he is innocent.
Vice President Pence made a similar warning on Thursday, in what amounted to an unusually vigorous public rebuke by the White House of a NATO ally and a sign of the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the two governments.
On Sunday, Pence repeated the admonition, writing on Twitter, “The United States of America is prepared to bring sanctions against Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
The White House has repeatedly called for the release of Brunson, who is from North Carolina and has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. U.S. officials were taken aback when a Turkish court released Brunson from prison last week but ordered him kept under house arrest while his trial continued, rather than being acquitted or deported to the United States.
Trump believed he had struck an agreement with Erdogan — to trade a Turkish citizen imprisoned on terrorism charges in Israel for Brunson’s release — during a friendly meeting between the two leaders at the July 11-12 NATO summit, according to White House officials and people familiar with the deal.
Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release Ebru Ozkan, a 27-year-old Turkish woman held on charges of aiding Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, and on July 15, she was deported and sent back to Turkey. But over the next 10 days, despite his release from prison, there was no sign Brunson’s trial was coming to an end.
After a testy phone call with Erdogan on Thursday, Trump tweeted his threat of sanctions.
Turkish officials immediately denied that there had been any deal. Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkey’s judiciary had put Brunson under house arrest “with good intentions” because the pastor was having health problems. “Just as America has its judiciary, Turkey does as well,” he said.
“Instead of respecting the decision of the judiciary, they are making this a matter of sanctions against Turkey,” Erdogan said. “You cannot make Turkey step back with sanctions.”
His government was discussing a range of issues with the United States, he said, including Erdogan’s demand that the Trump administration extradite a U.S.-based Turkish cleric accused of orchestrating a failed coup in Turkey two years ago. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied the accusations.
In a speech last year, Erdogan suggested that Gulen could be traded for Brunson. On Sunday, he said “we have never made Brunson a subject of negotiations.”