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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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Ricky Martin slams ‘religious liberty’ bill. Puerto Rico’s governor backs down.



Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló backed down from a “religious liberty bill” after international star Ricky Martin published an open letter Thursday slamming the legislation that would exempt government employees from serving constituents if they believe it clashes with their religious beliefs.

“As a defender of human rights and a member of the LGBTT community, I am vehemently opposed to the proposed measure imposed upon us under the guise of religious freedom,” the Puerto Rican artist wrote, that “projects us to the world as a backwards country.”

Hours after the letter was published, Rosselló asked legislators to shelve the bill, saying in a statement that “instead of reaching a consensus on a basis of mutual respect, it provokes the division of our people.”

His petition came just minutes after island senator Zoe Laboy said she was “determined to submit a negative report to the project of religious freedom before the members of the commission that I preside over for its evaluation.”

Martin’s letter came a day after he took to social media to speak out against Rosselló and the island’s House of Representatives, who had voted in favor of the bill Tuesday.

“The House Bill 2069, filed at the request of Governor Ricardo Rosselló and promoted by Representative Charbonier, is nothing more than opening the door to hatred towards anyone who does not share the same ideology, who belongs to the LGBTT community, or that is not even the same skin color, among so many other discriminatory manifestations,” Martin wrote on Twitter in Spanish.

The bill had sparked fierce outcry in the island from civil rights and LGBTQ actvists, and at least three U.S. Democratic presidential candidates — Julián Castro, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — have voiced their opposition to the legislation.

“We must defeat this bill — and work to end discrimination, rather than give it shelter,” Castro, the only Latino running for president, said.

New York Democratic congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who is from Puerto Rico, has also decried the measure.

Supporters of the bill, including the governor, say that the government cannot discriminate and has “the obligation to always provide public services to all its citizens.” Still, the bill calls for government employees and employers to “seek reasonable accommodations” in the face of “foreseeable future conflict.”

Rosselló had said Wednesday that he would only sign the controversial bill if Puerto Rican lawmakers approve another bill that would ban conversion therapies in Puerto Rico.

But this legislation has also been slammed by civil rights groups since it only bans conversion therapies conducted by mental health professionals while allowing the practice to continue in churches and by parents of a minor.

In the wake of the controversy, Rosselló asked legislators Thursday to also withdraw this bill.

The governor had already issued the controversial conversion therapy ban under an executive order March 27, and that will still stand even though it doesn’t become law.

Martin’s social media posts, which he published just three days after leading the 62nd National Puerto Rican Day Parade, motivated more artists and politicians to publicly condemn the bill.

Grammy-winning Puerto Rican musician René Pérez Joglar, also known as Residente Calle 13, said on Instagram that the law makes Puerto Rico “look bad on an international level, like a retrograde country.”

“This does no good to tourism, on the contrary. This is a shame,” the artist added.

“This movement is not representative of the Puerto Rico that we all love, defend and hold so dear. We call on the Senate, the House and Governor Ricardo Rosselló to reject this effort, which is an open door to hatred and discrimination,” Martin said in his letter.


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Biden’s ‘Back to the Future’ dilemma



The past is a double-edged sword for Joe Biden.

On one side, it’s been the main selling point in the early days of his campaign. He’s cast himself as a steady, experienced hand who can right the ship of state after a tumultuous period with President Donald Trump at the helm.

To endear himself to fellow Democrats, he’s so often used the phrase “Obama-Biden” to remind them of his two terms as President Barack Obama’s vice president that a newcomer to the political scene might be forgiven for thinking his first name is “Obama,” not “Joe.” During a trip to Iowa this week, he told voters that he’d been absent from an event over the weekend because he was spending time with the Obama family. A few days ago, he posted a throwback photo on Twitter of friendship bracelets bearing the names “Barack” and “Joe.”

That blade of the past — sharpened with nostalgia and name recognition — helped Biden swiftly cut through the crowded Democratic field as soon as he launched his campaign in April.

But on the reverse edge, Biden’s long record, including six terms in the Senate, have left him highly vulnerable to rivals claiming that he doesn’t represent the future of the party or the country. He is well aware of the perils of his paradox: needing to present as a candidate of the future while taking advantage of his connection to the still-popular Obama and the experience that sets him apart from the rest of the pack.

At a closed-door fundraiser in Chicago on Wednesday night, Biden told donors that he doesn’t want to get pinned down talking about votes he cast in the Senate as far back as the 1970s.

“This is not about the past,” he said. “It’s about the future, and what are we going to do? What are we going to do? How do we move this country forward? And it’s all within our wheelhouse to do these things. There’s not a single thing we cannot do.”

Those comments, though, came right after he had spoken about Obama, about how his granddaughter had grown up with Obama’s daughters, and how “this was a president that everybody could look up to.”

For some of Biden’s rivals — particularly the younger ones — his candidacy represents a misguided attempt at time travel. Just this week, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, 46, have, in increasingly aggressive terms, cast Biden as the driver who gets into the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” and plugs in the wrong date.

“You cannot go back to the end of the Obama administration and think that’s good enough,” O’Rourke said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday. “That cannot be who we are going forward. We’ve got to be bigger; we’ve got to be bolder.”

Specifically, O’Rourke went after Biden on his vote for the Iraq War and more recently playing down the threat China poses to the United States — even though Biden quickly repositioned, saying he takes the latter seriously. (Biden said on “Meet the Press” many years ago that his Iraq War vote was “a mistake.”)

Earlier this week, Buttigieg, an Afghanistan War veteran, suggested that Trump and Biden both have foreign policy views that are antiquated.

“Faced with this moment of great challenge and possibility, it’s not enough just to say we won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet,” Buttigieg said at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Nor would it be honest to promise that we can restore an old order that cannot, in any case, meet the realities of a new moment. Democrats can no more turn the clock back to the 1990s than Republicans can return us to the 1950s.”

The challenge for Biden, who has begun to roll out a series of policy proposals, will be to drive a narrative about his plans for the future in the midst of a campaign rooted in reminding Democratic voters — particularly voters in minority communities that felt recognized by Obama and threatened by Trump — of parts of his past. And to do all of that while cordoning off portions of his record he’d rather not discuss.

Last week, after months of deflecting hits on past positions, Biden took one. He announced that he no longer supports limits on federal funding for abortion — a change in a position he’d held for 40 years that came under pressure from abortion-rights groups and fellow Democratic candidates. It also came one day after his campaign had said he still favored the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal subsidization of abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the expectant mother is in danger.

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a veteran who is seeking the Democratic nomination, tweeted his approval of Biden’s new position, ending his message with “now do the Iraq War.”

Matt Corridoni, a spokesman for Moulton, said that he’s heard two main themes from Democratic voters on the campaign trail.

“They want to beat Donald Trump, but they also want something new,” Corridoni said. “I think that’s why you see Seth, Beto and Pete making this generational argument.”

Biden is finding out that William Faulkner’s observation applies to presidential politics: The past is never dead; it’s not even past.

To win, he may have to figure out how to get past his past.

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Hill push to battle foreign election interference is stuck at McConnell roadblock



WASHINGTON — Not every Republican agrees with President Trump that foreigners have a role to play in American elections.

In fact, some GOP senators have joined with Democrats to co-sponsor legislation designed to shore up voting machines and make it harder for foreign intelligence operatives to hack, leak and manipulate social media the way the Russians did in 2016.

But those bills are going nowhere — because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not allowed a vote on any of them.

“At this point, I don’t see any likelihood that those bills would get to the floor if we mark them up,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who serves under McConnell in the Senate leadership, said last month.

McConnell himself has avoided commenting directly on the bills. He declined to respond to questions about them at his weekly news conference this week, although he announced that senators would get a briefing on election security.

The election security and foreign interference legislation is garnering renewed attention in the wake of Trump’s comments Wednesday to ABC News that he saw nothing wrong with accepting incriminating information about a political opponent from Russia or other foreign governments.

“It’s not an interference. They have information,” Trump said. “I think I’d take it.”

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, immediately tweeted in response to Trump’s comments that “if the president and his campaign can’t be trusted to do the right thing,” Congress should pass his bill, which would require political campaigns to report to the FBI and federal election authorities any attempt of contact by foreign nationals offering services or information.

On Thursday, in the wake of Trump’s comments, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Warner made a request to pass the measure; Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., objected.

That measure doesn’t have any Republican co-sponsors. But Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally, has joined with Democrats in co-sponsoring the “Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act,” which would make it a federal crime to hack any voting systems used in a federal election.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., meanwhile, has co-sponsored the “Deter Act,” which would require the U.S. director of National Intelligence to determine, within 30 days of any federal election, whether Russia or other foreign government had engaged in election interference.

If interference was discovered, the act would require that mandatory sanctions be imposed within 10 days on Russian banks and energy companies, among other targets.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., has sponsored a bill that would craft voluntary security guidelines for voting systems — a measure that does not go far enough for most Democrats.

On the social media front, a bill by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic candidate for president, would require that political ads placed on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube be subject to the same disclosure requirements as television spots. That would allow the public to learn who was paying for the ads and how much was spent.

The Democratic-controlled House has passed several election security and foreign interference measures, but few if any of them have a chance of becoming law. The Democrats did insert $600 million for election security in a must-pass spending bill, but that will have to be negotiated.

According to published reports, McConnell refused in September 2016 to sign on to a bipartisan warning about Russian election interference when the Obama administration requested one from Congress.

McConnell’s office has pushed back by pointing to a September 2016 letter, signed by congressional leaders from both parties, and sent to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors that warned state officials about possible hacking efforts, but did not mention Russia.

For his part, even before he decreed it morally acceptable to make use of opposition research from foreign intelligence operatives, Trump has displayed little interest in the issue of how to protect American elections from outside interference.

While individual agencies such as the FBI have stepped up efforts to combat foreign influence, there is no evidence of a coordinated policy response out of the White House — something experts say is badly needed to grapple with difficult issues surrounding social media and free speech — and the local control afforded to America’s county-by-county voting system.

FBI Director Christopher Wray and top intelligence officials have said they expect Russia and other nations to attempt to meddle in the 2020 presidential election, building on the successful playbook that Russia employed in 2016.

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