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Trump Threatens Sanctions Against Turkey Over Detained Pastor

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Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor from North Carolina, was moved to house arrest from a jail near Izmir, Turkey, on Wednesday because of health concerns.CreditDHA, via Associated Press

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis

WASHINGTON — President Trump abruptly announced on Thursday that the United States would impose “large sanctions” on Turkey for detaining an American pastor accused of aiding a failed coup attempt there in 2016, escalating a bitter dispute among the two NATO allies.

Mr. Trump’s declaration on Twitter appeared to be more of a muscular threat than an official statement of policy; the administration made no announcement of specific punitive measures against the Turkish government, and the White House declined to provide any details about the steps it was ready to take.

It came one day after Andrew Brunson, 50, an evangelical pastor who has been imprisoned in Turkey for 21 months, was moved from jail to house arrest because of health concerns.

Mr. Brunson is one of 20 Americans charged after the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. His case has elevated tensions between the United States and Turkey even as Mr. Trump has sought warmer relations with Mr. Erdogan.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump ratcheted up the pressure for Mr. Brunson’s immediate release, telling Mr. Erdogan in a private phone call that the pastor’s continued imprisonment was unacceptable, according to a White House official who described the conversation on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

And the president vowed on Twitter to impose substantial sanctions on Turkey for Mr. Brunson’s detention.

It would be an extraordinary step to impose sanctions on a NATO ally, and the Turkish government responded defiantly.

“Noone dictates Turkey,” Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, wrote in a tweet. “We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.”

The widening conflict highlighted how the Trump administration has been torn over Turkey.

Mr. Trump and Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, have sought a closer rapport with Mr. Erdogan. But the Pentagon wants to preserve a close alliance with a Kurdish militia in northern Syria — one that the Turkish government regards as a terrorist group — to continue fighting the Islamic State.

Last month, a State Department official told Congress that plans by the Turkish government to acquire a Russian missile defense system would damage United States-Turkish relations beyond repair. The Senate temporarily blocked the sale of American weapons to Turkey, including F-35 fighter jets, because of Mr. Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian air defense system.

On Thursday, Mr. Erdogan met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on the sidelines of a summit meeting in South Africa of the so-called BRICS countries of major emerging nations.

“Every kind of solidarity between Russia and us really makes some jealous,” Mr. Erdogan said during a joint appearance with Mr. Putin before they met privately. He did not elaborate.

Mr. Brunson’s case, and the efforts to free him, has become a flash point in the relationship between the United States and Turkey.

Vice President Mike Pence met with members of Mr. Brunson’s family on Thursday at the State Department, where he demanded the pastor’s swift release, “or be prepared to face the consequences.”

“If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free,” Mr. Pence said during a ministerial meeting on religious freedom.

Mr. Brunson, who has done missionary work in Turkey for the past 23 years, is on trial on charges of terrorism and espionage, and faces up to 35 years in prison if found guilty of having links to two designated terrorist organizations.

One is a movement led by the American-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of instigating the 2016 failed coup, and the other is the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly requested the extradition of Mr. Gulen from the United States. The Turkish president has suggested that he would hand over Mr. Brunson if American officials agree to return Mr. Gulen to Turkey from the guarded estate in Pennsylvania where he currently lives.

On Thursday, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman criticized the United States for failing to target Mr. Gulen’s organization, which Turkish officials refer to by the acronym FETO, for Fethullah Terror Group.

“The United States must reconsider its approach and adopt a constructive position before inflicting further damage to its own interests and its alliance with Turkey,” the spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said in a statement.

Congress has also worked to intensify pressure on Turkey to release Mr. Brunson and the other Americans being held by Mr. Erdogan’s government.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation on Thursday that would direct American officials to reject international loans to Turkey until its government stops “arbitrarily” detaining United States citizens and embassy employees.

“We never wanted this bill to be necessary, but we warned the Turkish government that there would be consequences if it did not cease its unjust detention and harassment of U.S. citizens and locally employed embassy staff,” Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the committee, said in a statement.

Former officials said it was highly unlikely that the Trump administration would impose broad sanctions on the Turkish government or Mr. Erdogan, saying they could not recall a time when the United States had imposed such penalties on a longstanding ally that is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“In the scheme of Turkey, it’s fairly crazy,” said Richard Nephew, former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department during the Obama administration. “It’s not where we’ve had to go before.”

But the administration could target individuals involved in Mr. Brunson’s case through a law known as the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes sanctions on foreign government officials for human rights abuses, or takes other punitive measures such as applying visa restrictions to Turkish travelers.

The Treasury Department referred questions about the sanctions to the White House, which declined to preview any coming announcement.

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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