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WASHINGTON — The White House expects North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson to be released by the Turkish government and returned to the U.S. in coming days, two years after he was detained, according to two senior administration officials and another person briefed on the matter.

Under an agreement senior Trump administration officials recently reached with Turkey, Brunson is supposed to be released after certain charges against him are dropped at his next court hearing, currently scheduled for Friday, the senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said.

The details of the deal are unclear, but those familiar with the discussions said it includes a commitment by the U.S. to ease economic pressure on Turkey.

The Trump administration, however, isn’t fully confident that Turkey will follow through with the Brunson agreement because Ankara was close to a commitment to release him several months ago but did not, one senior administration official said.

“We continue to believe Pastor Brunson is innocent, and the hearing on Friday is another opportunity for the Turkish judicial system to free an American citizen,” a third senior administration official said.

Two senior administration officials said the White House had not been notified of any change in Brunson’s October 12 court hearing as of Thursday morning.

A spokesperson for the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment. The White House declined to comment on the record and the Brunson family said they are also not commenting at this time.

The Turkish government has accused Brunson of helping terrorist groups, charges he has denied. The Trump administration has aggressively pushed for his release, saying he was wrongfully detained. In July, Turkey released Brunson from prison and moved him to house arrest. He faces a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison if convicted.

Image: Andrew Craig Brunson
Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson is escorted by Turkish plainclothes police officers to his house on in Izmir on July 25, 2018.AFP – Getty Images file

An agreement on Brunson’s release was advanced in discussions last month between Turkish and U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, during the gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the senior administration officials and person briefed on the matter said.

The White House does not plan to publicly address Brunson’s release in advance of his court hearing out of concern that doing so would jeopardize it. Officials from both countries have signaled Brunson’s possible release in recent weeks.

In remarks to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America Wednesday, Pompeo referenced Brunson’s situation, saying that releasing the pastor would be the “humanitarian thing for Turkey to do.”

“I am very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson will, he and his wife will be able to return to the United States,” Pompeo added.

Brunson is an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, N.C. He has spent more than two decades living in Turkey, where he ran the Resurrection Church in the western city of Izmir. He was detained in Turkey in October 2016 and charged with helping individuals Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says were behind a failed coup earlier that year.

Brunson’s imprisonment has increasingly strained the relationship between the Trump administration and Turkey, a NATO ally. Brunson’s release could be more likely given his court hearing comes at a time when Turkey is seeking U.S. support for challenging Saudi Arabia in response to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Brunson’s release “could reset Trump and Erdogan’s relationship,” Cagaptay said.

Administration officials have said the release of Brunson, as well as other Americans, would be a significant step toward mending ties between the U.S. and Turkey.

“This administration has been actively engaged in seeking Pastor Brunson’s release for months, along with NASA Scientist Serkan Golge and the employees of the U.S. Mission in Turkey,” the third senior administration official said. “A positive development in the cases of Pastor Brunson, Serkan Golge, and local employees of the U.S. Mission in Turkey would do much to improve confidence and to restore the bilateral relationship.”

Vice President Mike Pence has been a leading critic of Brunson’s detainment and advocate for his immediate release.

Trump announced economic sanctions against Turkey in August after talks with Ankara failed to result in Brunson’s release. He also has publicly called for Erdogan to release Brunson.

“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long,” Trump wrote on Twitter in July. “He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”

According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, Erdogan told reporters this week when asked about Brunson: “I must obey whatever the decision the judiciary gives.”

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62 percent say Trump isn’t telling the truth in Russia probe

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By Mark Murray

WASHINGTON — Six in 10 Americans say President Donald Trump has been untruthful about the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, while half of the country says the investigation has given them doubts about Trump’s presidency, according to a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The survey, conducted a month after the results of November’s midterm elections, also finds more Americans want congressional Democrats — rather than Trump or congressional Republicans — to take the lead role in setting policy for the country.

And just 10 percent of respondents say that the president has gotten the message for a change in direction from the midterms — when the GOP lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives but kept its majority in the U.S. Senate — and that he’s making the necessary adjustments.

“The dam has not burst on Donald Trump,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, whose firm conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “But this survey suggests all the structural cracks [that exist] in the dam.”

The NBC/WSJ poll — conducted Dec. 9-12 — comes after new developments in the Russia probe and other investigations involving the president, including evidence and allegations that:

  • Trump and his team were offered “synergy” with the Russian government.
  • Trump directed an illegal campaign-finance scheme to make payments covering up two alleged affairs in the last days of the 2016 campaign.
  • Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort continued to communicate with Trump administration officials well after his indictment.
  • Former Trump lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen was sentenced to prison for three years.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Trump denied directing Cohen to make the payments covering up the alleged affairs.

“I never directed him to do anything wrong,” Trump said. “Whatever he did he did on his own. He’s a lawyer. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing that’s why you pay them a lot of money.”

Asked in the poll if Trump has been honest and truthful when it comes to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and related matters, 62 percent of all adults say they disagree. That includes 94 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents and a quarter (24 percent) of Republicans.

By contrast, 34 percent believe Trump has been honest and truthful about the investigation, including 70 percent of Republicans, 29 percent of independents and just 5 percent of Democrats.

These numbers are a slight shift from August, when 38 percent of registered voters agreed Trump has been honest and truthful about the investigation, and 56 percent disagreed.

“Last week’s Cohen and Manafort news clearly hurt the president — no dramatic movement to be sure, but incremental erosion in President Trump’s credibility,” said Democrat pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates.

Also in the poll, a combined 50 percent of Americans say the Russia investigation — led by special counsel Robert Mueller — has given them “major,” “fairly major” or “just some” doubts about Trump’s presidency, versus 44 percent who say it hasn’t given them more doubts.

McInturff, the GOP pollster, says that the 44 percent without doubts is a “powerful reminder about the status of his political base.”

What’s more, a plurality of respondents — 46 percent — say the convictions and guilty pleas of members of Trump’s 2016 campaign suggest potential wrongdoing by the president, compared with 23 percent who believe the wrongdoing is limited only to those individuals; 28 percent don’t know enough to say.

And asked if Mueller’s investigation should continue, 45 percent believe it should, while 34 percent think it should come to an end — essentially unchanged from August’s NBC/WSJ poll.

More Americans want Democrats — not Trump — in charge of policy

A month after the results from the 2018 midterm elections, 48 percent of Americans say they want Democrats in Congress to take the lead role in setting policy for the country, versus 21 percent who want congressional Republicans to take the lead and 19 percent who want Trump in charge.

The numbers are consistent with past results on this same question from the June and October 2017 NBC/WSJ polls.

Asked about Trump’s response to the midterm elections, 10 percent of Americans say Trump has gotten the message that voters wanted a change in direction and that he’s making the necessary adjustments; 22 percent say he got the message but is not making those adjustments; 33 percent say he didn’t get the message; and 31 percent maintain the elections were not a message for a change in direction.

“The voters believe they sent a message, and they believe the president hasn’t gotten it yet,” said Yang, the Democratic pollster.

But McInturff counters that Trump is simply reflecting the overwhelming number of Republicans who feel positive about the results from the midterms and who don’t believe it sent a message.

Forty-three percent approve of Trump’s job

Trump’s job rating in new NBC/WSJ poll stands at 43 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove among all adults. (Right before the midterms, it was 46 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove among registered voters.)

And looking ahead to 2020, a combined 38 percent of registered voters say they’d “definitely” or “probably” vote for Trump in his re-election, compared with 52 percent of voters who would “definitely” or “probably” vote against him — unchanged from December 2017.

Public is increasingly pessimistic about the economy

Finally, the poll finds the percentage of Americans believing the U.S. economy will get worse in the next 12 months is at its highest point since 2013.

Overall, 28 percent say the economy will get better in the next year, 33 percent think it will get worse and 37 percent believe it will stay about the same.

(Those numbers were essentially reversed last January: 35 percent said the economy would get better, 20 percent said it would get worse and 43 percent said it would stay the same.)

“For the first time in Trump’s presidency, his safety net of a robust economy shows signs of unraveling,” said Yang, the Democratic pollster.

“And remember, the booming economy didn’t prevent voters from turning against Republicans in November,” he added.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Dec. 9-12 of 900 adults — almost half of whom were reached by cellphone — and the overall margin of error in the survey is plus-minus 3.3 percentage points. The margin of error for the 725 registered voters in the poll is plus-minus 3.6 percentage points.



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Very early Iowa Democratic primary poll finds Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders leading the field

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By Allan Smith

Former Vice President Joe Biden and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont led the massive field of 2020 Democratic primary contenders in a very early Iowa poll released this weekend.

A Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll, released Saturday, showed Biden garnering 32 percent support from likely Democratic caucusgoers in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state, while Sanders picked up support from 19 percent of respondents.

Following Biden and Sanders was Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who narrowly lost a Senate bid last month against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and has since seen his stock rise among Democrats. O’Rourke came in with 11 percent support. No other candidate received more than 10 percent in the Iowa poll. Of the remaining candidates polled, only Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California received 5 or more percent support among respondents.

Of note, nearly half of respondents — 49 percent — preferred a “seasoned political hand” when compared to a “newcomer” when asked who they thought would be the right person to defeat President Donald Trump.

The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom surveyed 455 likely Democratic caucusgoers. The poll, conducted from Dec. 10 through 13, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

Polls at this stage of the presidential cycle should be taken with a grain of salt, it should be noted. At this time in 2014, 14 months out from the Iowa contest, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush led a crowded GOP primary field in a CNN/ORC poll, garnering support from 23 percent of Republican primary voters. In second place was then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 13 percent of respondents selecting him as their preferred choice.

President Donald Trump was not even included in the survey.



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O’Rourke, other Dems don’t want tent city’s contract renewed

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/ Source: Associated Press

By The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — Rep. Beto O’Rourke and four other Democratic members of Congress toured a remote tent city in West Texas on Saturday where they said that 2,700 immigrant teens are being held at a cost of roughly $1 million per day.

The lawmakers urged the nonprofit running the facility not to renew a federal contract that expires Dec. 31, a longshot request that could effectively shutter the camp. It was supposed to be temporary but has instead taken in more children and taken on a permanent feel with soccer fields, a dining facility and tents housing separate sleeping quarters for boys and girls.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, the 2018 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas, speaks during a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in El Paso, Texas.Eric Gay / AP file

O’Rourke — a Texan who has been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate after nearly upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in his deep-red state — was joined by U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tina Smith of Minnesota, and California Rep. Judy Chu.

O’Rourke said he and his colleagues weren’t allowed to speak to the children in any meaningful way.

“They kind of nodded their heads, but what are they going to say when everyone around them is watching?” O’Rourke said after touring the facility. “But there was something in the look on their faces that we saw, the way that they weren’t really engaged in the sports that they were playing out on those fields.”

“We need to shut it down,” Chu added. “It is inhumane. It is a child prison. It has no right to exist.”

O’Rourke made no mention about his possible White House aspirations after making his fourth visit to the camp just outside Tornillo. He noted the area was about an hour’s drive from his native El Paso, which borders Mexico at the westernmost tip of Texas.

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