If you’re Andrew Brunson, I’m not sure what’s more disconcerting: the fact that you’re facing three decades in a Turkish prison on charges of conspiring against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in conjunction with Fethullah Gülen or the fact that your only hope of escaping Erdogan’s clutches is Donald Trump.
If I were Brunson, I’d almost be inclined to politely ask that Trump stay out of it, because invariably, he (Trump) is going to make things worse.
Since Mike Pence threatened to slap Turkey with sanctions in an effort to secure Brunson’s release last month, I’ve variously argued that with the possible exception of a nuclear standoff between a reality TV show host shrieking about “big working buttons” via @realDonaldTrump and a child despot threatening to “tame” a U.S. President with atomic hellfire via KCNA, the most combustible geopolitical situation imaginable is Trump squaring off against Erdogan in a fight over the detention of someone Ankara claims is a Gulenist.
The three things Erdogan hates most in this world are, in order, Fethullah Gülen, high interest rates, and the PKK. Brunson is accused of having ties to two of those, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if, by the end of this debacle, Erdogan accuses the pastor of being a closet monetary policy hawk.
The Turkish dictator clearly thinks he can use Brunson as a pawn to try and pressure Washington into extraditing Gülen, and even if that’s a long shot (which it is), the second best outcome would be using Brunson as leverage in the effort to secure a lenient fine on Halkbank, which was at the heart of the Reza Zarrab case.
It’s not clear how much of this Trump grasps, although given Michael Flynn’s ties to Ankara, you’d think the President knows enough to understand how unlikely it is that Erdogan is going to acquiesce to Washington’s demands, especially in light of the fact that this is unfolding less than two months after he consolidated power.
After spending all of last weekend making it abundantly clear that he’d sooner chop off his own arm than give up Brunson and contending (literally) that he will die before he hikes rates in response to pressure on the lira, Erdogan slapped additional tariffs on U.S. imports including liquor, rice and cars on Wednesday. On Tuesday, he threatened to boycott iPhones. Having securing what amounts to a $15 billion bailout from Qatar and having spoken with a seemingly sympathetic Angela Merkel over the phone on Wednesday, Erdogan seems emboldened, especially after Albayrak’s efforts to discourage shorting in the lira met with some success.
Well, just hours after Steve Mnuchin said the U.S. is ready to go ahead with further sanctions on Turkey in the event Brunson isn’t released immediately, Trump took to Twitter to deliver some bad news to the pastor.
“[Turkey] is now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage”, Trump tweeted, out of the clear blue sky on Thursday evening.
In case that was in any way unclear, he went on to say that the U.S. “will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man.”
As Corey Lewandowski would say: “womp, womp“. It looks like you’re stuck in prison, Andrew (or, “house arrest” to be more specific).
Trump also contended that “Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years”. It wasn’t immediately clear what the President was referring to, although that’s his boilerplate line when it comes to trade partners and NATO allies. He also exclaimed that America is “cutting back on Turkey!”
This is another one of those times where you have to imagine that everyone involved is confused, even the people Trump is at odds with. Sure, it makes sense that the President and his advisors have discussed not allowing Erdogan to use Brunson as leverage, because that opens the door for Ankara to simply arrest someone anytime they want something from Washington. But for one thing, they already do that (that’s standard operating procedure for Erdogan) and more importantly, it seems a bit distasteful for the President to hop on social media to break the bad news to Brunson that he’s now going to have to take one for the team by being “a great patriot hostage.”
I’m reminded of America’s farmers, who Trump has similarly asked to sacrifice in the interest of perpetuating the nebulous MAGA agenda.
On that note, I’ll leave you with a quote from Ken Maschhoff, chairman of Maschhoff Family Foods and co-owner of the nation’s largest family-owned pork producer, who spoke to CNBC last month about the deleterious effects the tariffs are having on American farmers. Although Maschhoff isn’t locked up in a Turkish prison, he, like Andrew Brunson, is being asked to suffer in the interest of “patriotism”:
[The farm industry has been] asked to be good patriots. We have been. But I don’t want to be the patriot who dies at the end of the war. If we go out of business, it’s tough to look at my kids and the 550 farm families that look us into the eye and our 1,400 employees.