WASHINGTON—President Trump said he would host American pastor Andrew Brunson at the White House on Saturday afternoon, calling him a “great Christian” who endured a “tough experience” while he was detained in Turkey.
Mr. Brunson was en route back to the U.S. after spending two years in detention in Turkey on terrorism charges, bringing to an end a diplomatic standoff that had jeopardized relationships between two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
Mr. Trump tweeted that he plans to meet with Mr. Brunson in the Oval Office at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
In a second tweet, Mr. Trump responded to news reports that his administration cut a deal with Turkey to ensure Mr. Brunson’s release, saying “There was NO DEAL made with Turkey.”
“I don’t make deals for hostages,” he said. “There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!”
Speaking to reporters on Friday, after Mr. Brunson’s plane had cleared Turkish airspace, Mr. Trump said: “We went through a system and we got him out. We tried to get him out for a long time.”
The homecoming for Mr. Brunson unfolds in the shadow of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who hasn’t been seen since he entered a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkey has been looking for U.S. support in confronting Saudi Arabia over Mr. Khashoggi, who Turkish authorities allege was killed by Saudi operatives. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement.
U.S. officials believe that Turkey’s gesture in releasing Mr. Brunson will help strengthen what has been a strained bilateral relationship. From Turkey’s perspective, freeing Mr. Brunson could also give the country more leverage with the U.S. over Saudi Arabia., U.S. officials said.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview: “This was a real barrier to having a normal relationship with Turkey. This allows us to move forward.”
Mr. Brunson was arrested in October 2016 and charged with supporting terrorist groups. He denied the accusations. Over the summer he was moved from jail to house arrest.
Evangelical Christians, an important piece of Mr. Trump’s political base, closely followed his plight and called for his release.
Mr. Trump took up the cause, using his
feed and diplomatic tools to get Turkey to relent. In July, he tweeted: “A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long.”
The following month, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Turkish ministers. While Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denounced the measures, he also privately looked for ways to settle the dispute, Turkish officials said.
With signs pointing to Mr. Brunson’s imminent release, his lawyers were hopeful late this week but also wary. Turkey had appeared on the verge of freeing Mr. Brunson before, only to prolong his detention, they said. At a hearing on Friday, a Turkish court found Mr. Brunson guilty of aiding terror groups but sentenced him to time served, setting in motion his trip home.