[OPINION] Has the Trump administration given up hope on pastor Brunson?

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US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on August 17, 2018. AFP PHOTO / Brendan SMIALOWSKI

Asking the evangelical pastor to ‘represent’ the United States as a ‘great patriot hostage’ might not bode well for his immediate future

Turkish Minute staff

The latest tweet from US President Donald Trump regarding American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in Turkey’s custody for almost two years and is standing trial on fabricated terrorism and espionage charges, has made the headlines with a single focus: that the US will not pay for his release.

“Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years. They are now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!” Trump tweeted late Thursday afternoon.

But is the media focusing on the wrong part of his message?

True, the payment wording could refer to a possible agreement gone wrong between the US Treasury and the government of Turkey to refrain from pursuing a sizable fine on Turkish state-owned Halkbank for complicity in evading US sanctions on Iran, which to Trump might translate into “paying” Turkey by foregoing the fine.

In fact, on Aug. 16, the same day as Trump’s tweet, Turkish Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak had said on a conference call with global investors that Turkey was “not expecting any fines” to be levied on Halkbank, although other actions against the financial institution could include blacklisting the bank and persons involved, or a special designation that would effectively cut Halkbank off from the US financial system.

Or perhaps “[paying] nothing” for Brunson’s release was in reference to a possible demand that the US help bail out Turkey‘s faltering economy.

However, the most puzzling part of Trump’s tweet was “… [Brunson] who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage.”

Trump has in the past referred to Brunson in more hopeful language, tweeting in April, “Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” or in a more strident tone, as in mid-July when he said, “Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father.” Even in threatening words at the end of July, when he tweeted, “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” adding, “This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

So on Thursday, Trump says he “now” — unlike before — “must ask” Brunson to “represent” the United States as a “hostage”?

The words imply that something has changed in the case of the long-detained pastor, who was moved from pretrial detention to house arrest in July, ostensibly to appease Trump in his demand for Brunson’s release.

The words imply a sudden – and surprising — pessimism about the fate of the cleric, indicating that the threats issued to Turkey by the Trump administration, the restrictions enacted by the US Congress on Ankara’s acquisition of military hardware, the sanctions imposed on Turkish ministers over his detention, the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports, the derogatory comments about Turkey and the dismal assessment of the state of bilateral relations have had no effect and that Brunson’s release is no longer imminent or even hoped for in the near future.

Trump appears to be asking Brunson to “accept” his fate as a political hostage because efforts have failed to secure his release any time soon, although various news reports have either ignored the wording or characterized Trump as “[calling him] a great patriot hostage” or urging him to “serve” as a “great patriot hostage” while he is jailed.

Only time will tell what pastor Brunson’s fate will be, but Trump’s latest wording does not bode well for his immediate future or for that of the US-Turkish relationship.

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