Updated at 4:13 p.m. ET
Andrew Brunson is back on U.S. soil.
After two years of detention in Turkey, during which the American pastor’s fate drove a wedge between two longtime allies, a newly-freed Brunson touched down Saturday at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington, D.C. From there, Brunson stopped by the White House for a visit with President Trump.
“I just want to congratulate you because you have galvanized this country,” Trump told Brunson, who was flanked by senior administration officials and his family. “There’s so much interest, and it’s your faith, it’s your strength — what you’ve gone through.”
Brunson, for his part, expressed his gratitude for the host of high-level officials in the room — ranging from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to GOP lawmakers.
“I really want to thank the administration,” Brunson said. “You really fought for us — unusually so. From the time you took office, I know that you’ve been engaged.”
The Evangelical Presbyterian pastor then knelt beside the president in prayer.
The scene Saturday offered something of a happy ending to a long story rife with tension and anger.
First arrested in October 2016, Brunson found himself rounded up — along with tens of thousands of other people — on suspicion of supporting a failed coup attempt just months earlier. Turkish authorities asserted that he had engaged in espionage and aided terrorist groups.
As his time in custody stretched on, his status attracted ire first from U.S. evangelical leaders, then from the highest rungs of power in Washington. Both Trump and Vice President Pence actively lobbied for his release, and earlier this year, the U.S. slapped several high-ranking Turkish officials with sanctions over the “unfair and unjust detention.”
Now, Brunson is free — found guilty by a court in the western city of Izmir, but sentenced to time served and released quickly afterward. He arrived in the U.S. to fanfare Saturday afternoon.
“They are thankful to be safely home in the USA,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, tweeted after returning to the country with the pastor and Brunson’s wife, Norine. “Under this administration being an American means something!”
Authorities on both sides of the diplomatic dispute are celebrating the ruling, though for different reasons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his surrogates have lauded the ruling as proof of the independence of his country’s judiciary system. The strongman leader has come under international criticism for fostering an increasingly authoritarian regime and cracking down on dissent within his borders — particularly after the failed coup attempt in 2016.
Addressing Trump on Twitter, Erdogan said Saturday that, “as I’ve always emphasized, the Turkish judiciary made an impartial decision.” Erdogan had previously suggested that Brunson’s freedom could depend on whether the U.S. approved his request to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric whom Erdogan blames for orchestrating the coup attempt.
But on Saturday, Erdogan struck a markedly more conciliatory tone, not long after Trump tweeted his thanks to the Turkish president “for his help.”
Trump also tweeted: “There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don’t make deals for hostages” and reiterated that point for reporters during the White House meeting.
That claim, however, has been contradicted by multiple media outlets. NBC News and The Washington Post have reported that Brunson’s relatively lenient sentence was handed down after secret negotiations between senior officials in Turkey and the Trump administration, conducted on the sidelines of last month’s United Nations General Assembly.
However Brunson’s release occurred, Trump hailed it as a milestone — and a sign of better things to come between the longtime NATO allies.
“I think this will be a big step in our relationship,” Trump told reporters.