“Think of the power that this country once had — and now we can’t even get a Christian pastor out of jail.”
Those were the blunt words that then-businessman Donald Trump uttered to me as we sat in his office at Trump Tower on a cold December afternoon back in 2013. He was referencing the troubling case surrounding Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor who at the time had been detained in Iran for more than a year.
Trump, who was highly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Abedini’s case, told me that he believed the former president had failed miserably and dropped the ball on securing the pastor — something he argued would have been quite simple.
But now Trump, who four years later is facing a similar scenario as America’s new commander-in-chief, is the one in the hot seat, considering the fact that Pastor Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen, has been behind bars in Turkey since October.
Sure, some of the details differ; Turkey is a longtime U.S. partner while Iran is, well, quite the opposite — and the U.S. isn’t currently navigating a tough, diplomatic road with Turkey as the nation was at the time with Iran.
— ACLJ (@ACLJ) March 29, 2017
That said, the comparison still remains: a U.S. citizen who is also a pastor is claiming to be unfairly and improperly detained inside of a Middle Eastern country. It’s difficult to tell how Trump will react now that he’s no longer a citizen and is ironically in the same position Obama once found himself in.
But before we continue, let’s circle back to my 2013 interview with Trump. Getting into some of the specifics specifics, he also complained that Abedini’s release could and should have been secured before Obama started easing sanctions against Iran as part of a controversial deal aimed at preventing Iran from furthering its nuclear capabilities.
“This is negotiation 101. This would have been so simple,” Trump said. “All you had to do is, before they even started (negotiations with Iran), say, ‘Do us both a favor — allow the Christian pastor out of jail for being Christian. He’s in jail because he’s a Christian.”
Trump, who then described himself as a Christian, explained that he had taken personal interest in Abedini’s case after hearing the details. Speaking more broadly, he said he believed the U.S. was being “run down into the tubes” and reiterated that all the Obama administration would have had to do was to ask and that Abedini would have been out of prison.
“I’d say with proper word usage, which is possibly not so easy for them … and proper negotiating skill, they would let him out in a heartbeat. Ask that he be released,” Trump said. “The way you do it is say, ‘This is good for both of us. It just works for both of us.'”
— ACLJ (@ACLJ) March 30, 2017
Now, let’s flash-forward to the current case involving Brunson and his detainment in Turkey. While the U.S. is on good terms with Turkey and relations might not be as sensitive as they were with Iran, a key question persists: Will Trump take a page from his own advice back in 2013, or will he wait years to secure Brunson’s release as was the case in Obama’s handling of Abedini’s release?
As you might recall, Abedini’s wife made headlines when she told TheBlaze in 2013 that Obama had “shown in his heart that he doesn’t care” about her husband’s detainment, expressing her frustrations over the government’s lack of action and communication with her. She said at the time — more than a year after Saeed’s detainment — that she had to that point only spoken with a desk worker at the State Department.
Obama did finally meet with her and her children in January 2015; a year later in January 2016, Abedini was released along with four other Americans as part of a prisoner swap that the U.S. negotiated.
So far, it seems the Trump administration is moving a bit quicker to open doors to higher-level communication with Brunson’s family. In fact, just days after the pastor recently released a statement pleading with Trump to help him, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Brunson’s wife, Norine. It’s a meeting that is said to have unfolded during Tillerson’s recent trip to Turkey.
And an account of the discussion was published by Norine Brunson in a March 30 Facebook poast.
On Monday, Andrew told me he felt the Lord had said I would meet with Sec of State Tillerson. On Tuesday, I was told by…
“On Monday, Andrew told me he felt the Lord had said I would meet with Sec of State Tillerson. On Tuesday, I was told by the embassy and another senator that the meeting would NOT happen,” she wrote at the time. “I decided to come to Ankara anyway and arrived last night.”
It was while in Ankara that she said she met with a “significant person” at the State Department in the early afternoon before being told that she would get a meeting with Tillerson as well; she said she later spoke with the Secretary of State about her husband’s dire situation.
“PTL, I just had a 20 min meeting with Sec of State Tillerson,” she wrote. “I do not know what will come of it, considering the sensitive period Turkey is in, but was grateful for the opportunity.”
Tillerson has also reportedly raised the issue with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with Erdoğan seemingly indicating that a indictment could soon come; the move would unseal Brunson’s records so that the thus-far concealed evidence against him can be seen by the pastor’s lawyer, among others.
A few facts should be noted: It’s unclear what Obama was doing behind the scenes while Trump, among others, were criticizing his handling of the Abedini situation. And, as stated, there are certainly differences between the two cases. Either way, the Trump administration has taken a much more public approach to the issue. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next.
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