A day after American pastor Andrew Brunson was moved from prison in Turkey to house arrest on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted a tough denunciation of his continued detention and threatened sanctions against the NATO ally if he were not freed immediately.
Almost simultaneously, Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a conference on religious freedom, also denounced Brunson continued confinement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, like Brunson a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, also called for the pastor’s release, though not using the harshness of Trump, nor the vehemence of Pence in his remarks.
Not surprisingly, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded with a statement on Twitter saying Turkey would not be dictated to and saying that Brunson was subject to the same law as anyone else in Turkey would be.
While Trump's tweet, Pence's speech, Pompeo's remarks and the Turkish reaction have received extensive media attention, nothing has been heard from U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton. We will likely have to wait a few days to learn whether he was consulted before the tweets were fired off and if so, what counsel he gave. If his office was not consulted before Pence's statement was delivered, a normal procedure in previous administrations, we may be seeing signs of a split between Bolton's and Pence's offices.
Why did senior American officials, including Trump, react in such a negative way to Brunson’s transfer to house arrest? Initially Pompeo and others expressed disappointment that Brunson had not been released, but acknowledged the move to house arrest was an improvement in his situation.
I and others saw the move to house arrest as the likely first step in a carefully choreographed process to have Brunson released in the not too distant future as a means to assuage the growing anti-Erdoğan and anti-Turkey passions in the U.S. Congress. That chamber sees Brunson's detention as unjust and a symptom of Turkey's drift away from the West towards authoritarianism. It considers the Brunson issue as one reason among many to end Turkey's participation in the programme to build F-35 advanced fighter jets.
But there are reports of leaks to that Trump and his subordinates believed there was a deal to get the complete release of Brunson and felt Turkey had reneged on the deal. Possibly there was no deal and Pence's statement was crafted some days ago for delivery at the religious freedom conference to boost Trump's evangelical base.
But the must have known the words used by Pence and Trump, and to a lesser extent Pompeo, would offend the White Palace – Erdoğan’s sprawling new residence - and not serve to secure Brunson's release soon. That said, this U.S. administration seems to think that publicly criticising other sovereign nations and their leaders will shape their behaviour; the furious Trump rhetoric towards North Korea led to negotiations and the return of the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in Korea more than 60 years ago.
And threatening high tariffs on European goods may have led to positive developments in trade with the EU. But if Erdoğan’s past behaviour is any indicator, and whether or not there was a deal on which one side reneged, it is doubtful that Trump's threats and demands will sway the Turkish president. Brunson's hopes for complete freedom look dimmer now and the somewhat minor foreign relations irritant of his detention has been elevated to a defining issue between the United States and Turkey.