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Secret deal with Turkey paves way for American pastor’s release

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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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Alaska independent governor suspends re-election bid

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JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker suspended his re-election bid Friday, three days after the sudden resignation of his lieutenant governor over what Walker described as an inappropriate overture toward a woman.

Walker’s announcement, made during the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage, was met with gasps.

Walker, the only independent governor in the country, took swipes at Republican rival Mike Dunleavy and did not explicitly endorse Democrat Mark Begich. But he said Begich’s stand on important issues more closely aligned with Walker’s priorities.

Walker’s campaign was rocked Tuesday by the resignation of Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Democrat who was replaced by former state health commissioner Valerie Davidson.

Throughout the campaign, some Democrats and independents worried that Walker and Begich would split the vote, giving the election to Dunleavy. Walker was elected in 2014 with Democratic support.

Walker campaign manager John-Henry Heckendorn earlier this week said Walker and Begich had been in talks about a “path forward for Alaska” but would not elaborate. On Thursday, Begich and Walker had sought to downplay any suggestions of a potential deal between them ahead of the Nov. 6 election.

Mallott, in a resignation letter, apologized for “inappropriate comments I made that placed a person whom I respect and revere in a position of vulnerability.”

Walker spokesman Austin Baird said the incident that led to Mallott’s resignation happened Sunday. Walker said he learned of it Monday. Few details have been released because Walker said he is honoring the wishes of the woman involved.

The partnership of Walker and Mallott — and blurring of partisan lines — was a central theme of their administration and of their campaign. Walker said he considers Mallott his closest friend and “soul mate.”

In 2014, Walker and Mallott were each running for governor, trying to unseat Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. Walker was a Republican mounting an outsider bid. Mallott was the Democratic candidate and an Alaska Native leader.

With the support of the Democratic party, the two men, who had developed a friendship, combined their campaigns and defeated Parnell. Walker changed his affiliation from Republican to undeclared, and Mallott remained a Democrat but became Walker’s running mate.

In the succeeding four years, the two men became as close as brothers.

This year, their desire to run together helped seal what some had already seen as an uphill battle for Walker because of the three-way fight between him, Begich and Dunleavy. Though Democrats now allow independents to run in their primaries, Walker opted against that when it appeared Begich would run. He instead gathered signatures to appear on the general election ballot, which ensured he and Mallott could run together.

Walker, 67, is no stranger to the underdog role and embraced it through much of the campaign. He often speaks of the emotional and financial toll of rebuilding his hometown of Valdez after the devastating 1964 Good Friday earthquake. As a kid, he worked odd jobs to help make ends meet and helped his father with his construction business. He said the quake changed him — teaching him lessons about faith, perseverance and working together.

As governor, he faced criticism for halving the size of the check Alaskans received from the state’s oil-wealth fund in 2016. He has defended his decision as proper; it came amid a massive budget deficit and legislative gridlock over how to address it. But critics labeled him a thief.

“I ran for the job to do the job, not to keep the job,” he said in a recent interview, describing that and other difficult decisions.

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Brexit BLUNDER: Macron makes EMBARRASSING mistake over French visas after UK leaves EU

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FRENCH President Emmanuel Macron committed a linguistic faux pas on Friday by accidentally claiming UK visitors would need French visas if there is no-deal Brexit, aides have said.

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Doubling down, Trump calls congressman who body-slammed reporter a ‘tough cookie’

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TEMPE, Ariz. — President Donald Trump on Friday redoubled his praise for a Montana congressman’s assault on a reporter during the lawmaker’s campaign for Congress last year.

“Greg is a tremendous guy, tough cookie,” Trump said of Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., who was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger management counseling and a $385 fine after he pleaded guilty to attacking Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian.

On Thursday night, at a campaign rally in Missoula, Mont., Trump lauded Gianforte to a cheering crowd.

“Never wrestle him,” Trump said Thursday night. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my guy.”

He reiterated his admiration for Gianforte Friday at a signing ceremony for a presidential memorandum instructing members of his Cabinet to remove impediments to major water projects, including streamlining the environmental review process — a boon to farmers and a loss for environmentalists in Western water wars.

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