Trump hosts US pastor after Turkey release

By AAP Newswire

President Trump has welcomed American pastor Andrew Brunson to the Oval Office, celebrating his release after nearly two years of confinement in Turkey.

Brunson, who returned to the US aboard a military jet shortly before their meeting on Saturday, appeared to be in good health and good spirits in his meeting with Trump at the White House.

Brunson thanked Trump for working to secure his freedom and then led his family in prayer for the president. "You really fought for us," he told him.

"From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours, that's not bad," Trump said.

Administration officials cast Brunson's release as vindication of Trump's hard-nosed negotiating stance, saying Turkey had tried to set terms for Brunson's release.

Trump maintained there was no deal for Brunson's freedom, but the president dangled the prospect of better relations between the US and his country's NATO ally.

"We do not pay ransom in this country," Trump said.

However, Trump thanked Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had resisted high-level US officials for Brunson's release.

Erdogan had insisted that his country's courts are independent, though he previously had suggested a possible swap for Brunson.

The US had repeatedly called for Brunson's release and, this year, sanctioned two Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum imports citing in part Brunson's plight.

Trump said the US greatly appreciated Brunson's release and said the move "will lead to good, perhaps great, relations" between the US and Turkey, and said the White House would "take a look" at the sanctions.

Brunson's homecoming amounts to a diplomatic high note for Trump, who is counting on the support of evangelical Christians for Republican candidates in the November 6 elections.

Thousands of Trump's supporters cheered Friday night at a rally in Ohio when Trump informed them that Brunson was once again a free man.

Trump asked Brunson and his family which candidate they voted for in 2016, saying he was confident they had gone for him.

"I would like to say I sent in an absentee ballot from prison," Brunson quipped, before praying that God grant Trump "supernatural wisdom."

Brunson's release could benefit Turkey by allowing the government to focus on an escalating diplomatic crisis over Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to The Washington Post who has been missing for more than a week and is feared dead after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, was killed in the consulate while Saudi officials deny it.

Trump maintained the two cases were not linked, saying Brunson's release amid the Khashoggi investigation was "strict coincidence."